We all talk to ourselves, whether it's aloud or silent inner talk. Although thinking out loud makes us look insane, science suggests it's actually a sign of intelligence, not mental illness. Psychologists at Bangor University in the UK have found external monologues boost brain power to improve our focus and achieve goals.

Paloma Mari-Beffa of Bangor University says our inner talk serves to control ourselves by helping us organize our thoughts, plan actions, consolidate memory, and modulate emotions. This inner talk evolves itself to talking out loud to further reinforce our approach to achieving set goals.

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"Talking out loud can be an extension of this silent inner talk, caused when a certain motor command is triggered involuntarily," wrote Mari-Beffa, in an article for The Conversation.

For example, as children, we learn by talking to ourselves because this is part of our developmental immaturity. Psychologist Jean Piaget dubbed this "egocentric speech", and realized toddlers begin to control their actions as soon as they start developing language. A 2008 study conducted by George Mason University found 5-year-olds do better on motor tasks when they talk to themselves out loud, whether it's spontaneously or when told to do so by an adult, compared to when they are silent. The researchers noted as children begin talking to themselves, their communication skills with the outside world improve.

In the study, published in Acta Psychologica, Mari-Beffa and Alexander Kirkhan conducted an experiment where they gave a total of 28 participants a set of written instructions, and asked them to read them either silently or out loud. The researchers observed talking out loud actually improved the participants’ control over a task compared to what is achieved by inner speech. They believe much of this benefit comes from simply hearing oneself.

An auditory command seems to better control behavior than written ones. Even if we talk to ourselves during challenging tasks, our performance tends to improve when we do it out loud, rather than silently.

Woman looking in mirror Science finds talking to yourself is a sign of intelligence, not mental illness. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

"The stereotype of the mad scientist talking to themselves, lost in their own inner world, might reflect the reality of a genius who uses all the means at their disposal to increase their brain power," wrote Mari-Beffa.

Similarly, previous research has shown talking to ourselves makes our brain work more efficiently. In a 2011 study, researchers gave 20 people the name of an object, (i.e., a loaf of bread or an apple), to find in the supermarket both in silence and then aloud as they looked for it in the store. The participants found the object with more ease when they spoke to themselves while searching, because thinking out loud helped spark memory. In other words, speaking facilitated search, meaning there was a strong association between the name and the visual target.

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These studies suggest talking to ourselves is not only a way to control our behavior, but it's also something that we prefer to do by default. It helps us organize our thoughts. Psychologist Linda Sapadin believes talking to ourselves helps us validate important, difficult decisions. It clarifies our thoughts to determine what's important and solidify any decisions we're contemplating. This is often way we're advised to "talk it out" when we have problems.

This is why we often see sports elites like tennis player Serena Williams talking to herself during competitions to stay focused and achieve her goals. Perhaps adapting an athlete's state of mind by talking out loud can act as our own motivational pep talk to improve our focus. Initially, talking to ourselves may seem like madness, but science argues it’s the habit of a genius.

Source: Kirkjam AJ, Breeze JM, and Mari-Beffa P. The impact of verbal instructions on goal-directed behaviour. Acta Psychologica. 2012.

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