Talking out loud to oneself is a technology for thinking that allows us to clarify and sharpen our approach to a problem
This week, a woman was strolling in my street, walking in circles and speaking out loud to herself. People were looking at her awkwardly, but she didn’t particularly mind, and continued walking vigorously and speaking.
Yes, that woman was me.
Like many of us, I talk to myself out loud, though I’m a little unusual in that I often do it in public spaces. Whenever I want to figure out an issue, develop an idea or memorise a text, I turn to this odd work routine. While it’s definitely earned me a reputation in my neighbourhood, it’s also improved my thinking and speaking skills immensely. Speaking out loud is not only a medium of communication, but a technology of thinking: it encourages the formation and processing of thoughts.
The idea that speaking out loud and thinking are closely related isn’t new. It emerged in Ancient Greece and Rome, in the work of such great orators as Marcus Tullius Cicero. But perhaps the most intriguing modern development of the idea appeared in the essay ‘On the Gradual Formation of Thoughts During Speech’ (1805) by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. Here, Kleist describes his habit of using speech as a thinking method, and speculates that if we can’t discover something just by thinking about it, we might discover it in the process of free speech. He writes that we usually hold an abstract beginning of a thought, but active speech helps to turn the obscure thought into a whole idea. It’s not thought that produces speech but, rather, speech is a creative process that in turn generates thought. Just as ‘appetite comes with eating’, Kleist argues, ‘ideas come with speaking’.
A lot of attention has been given to the power of spoken self-affirmation as a means of self-empowerment, in the spirit of positive psychology. However, as Kleist says, talking to oneself is also a cognitive and intellectual tool that allows for a wider array of possible use cases. Contemporary theories in cognition and the science of learning reaffirm Kleist’s speculations, and show how self-talk contributes not only to motivation and emotional regulation, but also to some higher cognitive functions such as developing metacognition and reasoning.
If self-talk is so beneficial, why aren’t we talking to ourselves all the time? The dynamic between self-talk and inner speech might explain the dubious social status of the former. Self-talk is often seen as the premature equivalent of inner speech – the silent inner voice in our mind, which has prominent cognitive functions in itself. The tendency to express our inner thoughts in actual self-talk, typical of children, is internalised, and transforms to voiceless inner speech in adulthood, as the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky already speculated in the 1920s.
Self-talk is deemed legitimate only when done in private, by children, by people with intellectual disabilities, or in Shakespearean soliloquies
Vygotsky’s view stood in opposition to a competing one from the psychological school known as behaviourism, which saw children’s self-talk as a byproduct of (supposedly) less competent minds. But Vygotsky claimed that self-talk has an active mental role. He observed children performing tasks while speaking to themselves out loud, and reached the conclusion that their ‘private-talk’ is a crucial stage in their mental development. Gradually, a child’s interaction with others turns into an uttered conversation with the self – self-talk – until it becomes muted inner speech in adulthood. Vygotsky’s successors, such as the psychologist Charles Fernyhough, have demonstrated that inner speech goes on to facilitate an array of cognitive functions including problem solving, activating working memory and preparation for social encounters. It is inner speech rather than self-talk, then, that has been the focus of research in adults.
However, the internalisation of self-talk isn’t necessarily evidence of cognitive maturity: rather, it could represent the degeneration of an essential cognitive skill in the face of social pressure. The sociologist Erving Goffman noted that self-talk is taboo because it is a ‘threat to intersubjectivity’ and violates the social assumption that speech is communicative. As he wrote in his book Forms of Talk (1981): ‘There are no circumstances in which we can say: “I’m sorry, I can’t come right now, I’m busy talking to myself”.’ Self-talk is deemed legitimate only when done in private, by children, by people with intellectual disabilities, or in Shakespearean soliloquies.
Yet self-talk enjoys certain advantages over inner speech, even in adults. First, silent inner speech often appears in a ‘condensed’ and partial, form; as Fernyhough has shown, we often tend to speak to ourselves silently using single words and condensed sentences. Speaking out loud, by contrast, allows the retrieval of our thoughts in full, using rhythm and intonation that emphasise their pragmatic and argumentative meaning, and encourages the creation of developed, complex ideas.
Not only does speech retrieve pre-existing ideas, it also creates new information in the retrieval process, just as in the process of writing. Speaking out loud is inventive and creative – each uttered word and sentence doesn’t just bring forth an existing thought, but also triggers new mental and linguistic connections. In both cases – speech and writing – the materiality of language undergoes a transformation (to audible sounds or written signs) which in turn produces a mental shift. This transformation isn’t just about the translation of thoughts into another set of signs – rather, it adds new information to the mental process, and generates new mental cascades. That’s why the best solution for creative blocks isn’t to try to think in front of an empty page and simply wait for thoughts to arrive, but actually to continue to speak and write (anything), trusting this generative process.
Speaking out loud to yourself also increases the dialogical quality of our own speech. Although we have no visible addressee, speaking to ourselves encourages us to actively construct an image of an addressee and activate one’s ‘theory of mind’ – the ability to understand other people’s mental states, and to speak and act according to their imagined expectations. Mute inner speech can appear as an inner dialogue as well, but its truncated form encourages us to create a ‘secret’ abbreviated language and deploy mental shortcuts. By forcing us to articulate ourselves more fully, self-talk summons up the image of an imagined listener or interrogator more vividly. In this way, it allows us to question ourselves more critically by adopting an external perspective on our ideas, and so to consider shortcomings in our arguments – all while using our own speech.
You might have noticed, too, that self-talk is often intuitively performed while the person is moving or walking around. If you’ve ever paced back and forth in your room while trying to talk something out, you’ve used this technique intuitively. It’s no coincidence that we walk when we need to think: evidence shows that movement enhances thinking and learning, and both are activated in the same centre of motor control in the brain. In the influential subfield of cognitive science concerned with ‘embodied’ cognition, one prominent claim is that actions themselves are constitutive of cognitive processes. That is, activities such as playing a musical instrument, writing, speaking or dancing don’t start in the brain and then emanate out to the body as actions; rather, they entail the mind and body working in concert as a creative, integrated whole, unfolding and influencing each other in turn. It’s therefore a significant problem that many of us are trapped in work and study environments that don’t allow us to activate these intuitive cognitive muscles, and indeed often even encourage us to avoid them.
Technological developments that make speaking seemingly redundant are also an obstacle to embracing our full cognitive potential. Recently, the technology entrepreneur Elon Musk declared that we are marching towards a near future without language, in which we’ll be able to communicate directly mind-to-mind through neural links. ‘Our brain spends a lot of effort compressing a complex concept into words,’ he said in a recent interview, ‘and there’s a lot of loss of information that occurs when compressing a complex concept into words.’ However, what Musk chalks up as ‘effort’, friction and information loss also involves cognitive gain. Speech is not merely a conduit for the transmission of ideas, a replaceable medium for direct communication, but a generative activity that enhances thinking. Neural links might ease intersubjective communication, but they won’t replace the technology of thinking-while-speaking. Just as Kleist realised more than 200 years ago, there are no pre-existing ideas, but rather the heuristic process by which speech and thought co-construct each other.
So, the next time you see someone strolling and speaking to herself in your street, wait before judging her – she might just be in the middle of intensive work. She might be wishing she could say: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t chat right now, I’m busy talking to myself.’ And maybe, just maybe, you might find yourself doing the same one day.