Talking to yourself: A useful thinking tool that seems understudied and underdiscussed

by chaosmage 5y9th Sep 201428 comments

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I have returned from a particularly fruitful Google search, with unexpected results.

My question was simple. I was pretty sure that talking to myself aloud makes me temporarily better at solving problems that need a lot of working memory. It is a thinking tool that I find to be of great value, and that I imagine would be of interest to anyone who'd like to optimize their problem solving. I just wanted to collect some evidence on that, make sure I'm not deluding myself, and possibly learn how to enhance the effect.

This might be just lousy Googling on my part, but the evidence is surprisingly unclear and disorganized. There are at least three seperate Wiki pages for it. They don't link to each other. Instead they present the distinct models of three seperate fields: autocommunication in communication studies, semiotics and other cultural studies, intrapersonal communication ("self-talk" redirects here) in anthropology and (older) psychology and private speech in developmental psychology. The first is useless for my purpose, the second mentions "may increase concentration and retention" with no source, the third confirms my suspicion that this behavior boosts memory, motivation and creativity, but it only talks about children.

Google Scholar yields lots of sports-related results for "self-talk" because it can apparently improve the performance of athletes and if there's something that obviously needs the optimization power of psychology departments, it is competitive sports. For "intrapersonal communication" it has papers indicating it helps in language acquisition and in dealing with social anxiety. Both are dwarfed by the results for "private speech", which again focus on children. There's very little on "autocommunication" and what is there has nothing to do with the functioning of individual minds.

So there's a bunch of converging pieces of evidence supporting the usefulness of this behavior, but they're from several seperate fields that don't seem to have noticed each other very much. How often do you find that?

Let me quickly list a few ways that I find it plausible to imagine talking to yourself could enhance rational thought.

  • It taps the phonological loop, a distinct part of working memory that might otherwise sit idle in non-auditory tasks. More memory is always better, right?
  • Auditory information is retained more easily, so making thoughts auditory helps remember them later.
  • It lets you commit to thoughts, and build upon them, in a way that is more powerful (and slower) than unspoken thought while less powerful (but quicker) than action. (I don't have a good online source for this one, but Inside Jokes should convince you, and has lots of new cognitive science to boot.)
  • System 1 does seem to understand language, especially if it does not use complex grammar - so this might be a useful way for results of System 2 reasoning to be propagated. Compare affirmations. Anecdotally, whenever I'm starting a complex task, I find stating my intent out loud makes a huge difference in how well the various submodules of my mind cooperate.
  • It lets separate parts of your mind communicate in a fairly natural fashion, slows each of them down to the speed of your tongue and makes them not interrupt each other so much. (This is being used as a psychotherapy method.) In effect, your mouth becomes a kind of talking stick in their discussion.

All told, if you're talking to yourself you should be more able to solve complex problems than somebody of your IQ who doesn't, although somebody of your IQ with a pen and a piece of paper should still outthink both of you.

Given all that, I'm surprised this doesn't appear to have been discussed on LessWrong. Honesty: Beyond Internal Truth comes close but goes past it. Again, this might be me failing to use a search engine, but I think this is worth more of our attention that it has gotten so far.

I'm now almost certain talking to myself is useful, and I already find hindsight bias trying to convince me I've always been so sure. But I wasn't - I was suspicious because talking to yourself is an early warning sign of schizophrenia, and is frequent in dementia. But in those cases, it might simply be an autoregulatory response to failing working memory, not a pathogenetic element. After all, its memory enhancing effect is what the developmental psychologists say the kids use it for. I do expect social stigma, which is why I avoid talking to myself when around uninvolved or unsympathetic people, but my solving of complex problems tends to happen away from those anyway so that hasn't been an issue really.

So, what do you think? Useful?

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