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April 20, 2012 at 4:53 PMComments: 6 Faves: 1

Talking To Yourself: Why We Do It and When To Worry

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the The Well Mind Blog Series

While reports show it’s something we all do and do often - from every few days to every hour – for a number of reasons the behavior is one about which little is known.

For one, talking aloud to yourself happens in a strange middle ground between conscious and unconscious. Typically, it’s something we suddenly realize that we’ve been doing. It begins unconsciously and ends consciously.

For another, with public perception tying the act to mental instability, we all try our best NOT to be observed partaking in it.  Still, while the media abounds with muttering portrayals of insanity, doctors and psychologists knew that with everyone doing it, we couldn’t ALL be crazy. There must be some good reason for our self-talk. They just weren’t sure how to study it.

Enter psychologists Gary Lupyan and Daniel Swingley.

The Study

The approach to their study was inspired when they noticed that often people mumble to themselves as they are looking for something.

In a study reminiscent of the “I Spy” and “Where’s Waldo?” books of my youth, they had participants scan 20 busy pictures, asking them to find just one object within it. Some were simply allowed to go at it, while others they were instructed to repeat the name of the object they were seeking as they searched. In the end they found that people consistently found objects faster when they spoke aloud than when they remained quiet!

It seems that instances of self-talk related to searching actually allow us to hone our focus. As the Science Daily article suggested  maybe “The next time you lose your keys, you may want to mutter ‘keys keys keys’ to yourself while searching for them, and just ignore the strange looks you may be getting…

Go ahead! Give it a try. Find the walking shoes.

 i spy image

Photo Credit: Meshl

"Talking To Yourself Makes You Smarter" - REALLY?

Interesting for sure! And yet, further researching the topic and seeing article after article titled with broad statements about the finding, I must admit I was becoming a little disappointed with the media coverage around it. For example, “Talking to Yourself Really Can Make You Smarter”? REALLY, Business Insider?  

I’m not one to throw out insults, but the title is misleading at best and ignorant at worst.

How much does our ability to find things actually say about our intelligence? Further, how can they wrap all self-talk into one category?

The fact is, as impressive as it is that Mr. Lupyan and Swingley managed to study it at all, this study only begins to touch the surface of the understanding the behavior’s mechanism and effects on the mind.

Why We Talk To Ourselves

Purely from observation, we know we self-talk for a variety of reasons.To name a few…

  • Problem-Solving. When we’re at a loss, we might engage in self-talk as we problem solve. One example of this could be where to find the keys, but it could be more complex issues like how to make it when you realize funds are tighter than you thought.
  • Goal-Setting. When we’re feeling obstinate, determined, or discouraged we may vow aloud to do something to enact the change we want. We may even go so far as to name the steps we’re going to take.
  • Expression. When we’re watching a scary movie and the stupid actress hears a scary sound and decides to investigate, we may shout at her. When we spill a drink we might call ourselves or the even the drink a name.  We may also engage in self-talk that is not be related to specific incident. It may just be an expression of how we’re feeling overall.
  • Practice. Before we make an important phone call, we might practice what we want to say. When we’ve had a conversation and we weren’t completely satisfied with our part in it, we might re-enact the conversation once again, saying what we WISH we had said.

In most cases, you’ll notice, we talk aloud to ourselves when we’re feeling overwhelmed or unsure. Afterall, as professor of psychology Tom Brinthaupt points out "There's not a lot you can say when things are going really well: 'I want to keep things as they are,' "

He hypothesizes that when we speak out loud to ourselves, we do it as a way to regulate our behavior. Further, that self-talk is "not that different from a thermostat. It's one of the ways we monitor ourselves, control impulses and guide actions."

According to Brinthaupt, not only is self-talk normal, it’s actually therapeutic! However, there is a line.

Talking To Yourself Out Loud: When to Worry

While psychologists say very frequent self-talkers probably don’t need to worry that they’re “crazy”, they make a point that there may be a problem with depression, loneliness or stress.  In cases where self-talk is worrying says psychiatrist Zelimer Skocillic,

“Persons who talk to themselves probably do not have anyone to share their opinion with….There are situations when an individual expresses their thoughts with a subconscious desire to especially emphasize this opinion… Those who are under the impression of a disputable situation speak out loud… Too much talking to ourselves does not have to be a sign of a disturbance, but the issue of sociality is raised. Many people have a problem with sharing their thoughts and they often do not have anyone to listen to them, they miss communicating”

In the end, I think most of us know instinctively what is normal for us and what is not.

If you talk to yourself as much as you ever have and your tone is generally neutral with negativity directed outward, you’ve probably got nothing to worry about.

However, if you notice the frequency in which you self-talk has increased or became hurtful or very negative toward yourself, you’re still probably not crazy, but seeking the help of friend, family member, counselor or therapist may be a good idea. (Also, check out this blog about negative self-talk and ways to redirect HERE. It's not the most beautiful site, but Cathryn Bond offers some great advice on the subject).

Thanks for listening! ;)


The Wall Street Journal: From Crib to Cubicle, a Familiar Voice -- Our Own -- Reassures

Dalje: Why Do We Talk To Ourselves?

Business Insider: Talking to Yourself Really Can Make Your Smarter

Science Daily: It doesn't mean you're crazy - talking to yourself has cognitive benefits, study finds

Photo Credit:


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  • I talk to myself all the time at work...I was told it was a nurse thing.

  • Usually when I realize I was talking to myself, it's while doing things that don't require a ton of thought- cleaning the house, doing the laundry, driving, that sort of thing. Kind of embarrassing, but it makes me feel better to know it's something we all do. haha :)

  • I talk to myself and read aloud to myself all the time. Glad I'm not back to back with other workmates or they'd think I'm nuts.

  • Italk to my self when i am mad sad and even happy but eather way we all talk to our self one time or anther and beleave it or not i be talking to my tather God he lessons to me thank you for hearing me YO

  • what should i dosbout that Help

  • Great article! I too was disappointed with the mainstream articles saying if you talk to yourself your a genious lol. We all wanna feel special but common. Thanks again for accurately explaining this behavior!

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