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

by chaosmage2 min read9th Sep 201428 comments


Problem-solving (skills and techniques)Practical

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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In computer programming, this is commonly called rubber ducking.

Fascinating. I'm a programmer and I do that (minus the rubber duck), but I didn't know the term. Thanks!

No problem. It seems like programming is a perfect example of something with a very large working memory requirement and the manipulation of a lot of symbolic, linguistic information.

Articles like this are what I read Lesswrong for. In other boards there is usually way too much discussion of technical details of technology or discussion of the novelty of some novelties. Here is a method that is easy to implement with some amount of research backing it, that I disregarded in the past, tried from time to time and didn't see the benefit for the social cost of weirdness and now am very tempted to give it another try.

For me the benefit of talking out loud would be more a matter of focus. I have an inner conversation anyway and so it would be just saying the same words as I am already saying on the inside (which might slow me down, but not an issue when the problem is difficult). The real point is that if I say the words then I am only going to say the words related to the problem. The words related to the distraction will not be said out loud. Therefore, making an effort to speak out loud means that there will be more focus on the problem because allowing my focus to wander onto distractions more obviously results in silence.

I definitely notice that it is at times when I am most struggling against a distraction that I start talking through my problems out loud.

I often "talk" to myself not out loud, but by typing my stream of thoughts into a text file, recording the questions I'm asking myself and the answers I'm coming up with.

Sometimes, just having a pen in my hand seems to improve the flow of thoughts, even if I don't actually write anything.

Two anecdotes are relevant here.

Lewis Carroll from the introduction to his Symbolic Logic:

If possible, find some genial friend, who will read the book along with you, and will talk over the difficulties with you. Talking is a wonderful smoother-over of difficulties. When I come upon anything——in Logic or in any other hard subject——that entirely puzzles me, I find it a capital plan to talk it over, aloud, even when I am all alone. One can explain things so clearly to one’s self! And then, you know, one is so patient with one’s self: one never gets irritated at one’s own stupidity!

And Henry Hazlitt from his Thinking As a Science:

Fortunately there is one method superior to any yet named, which requires no study before its application, and no paraphernalia during it. It consists in simply talking your thoughts as you think them. One who has not tried this can have no idea of its effect. It possesses almost all the advantages of writing. You cannot wander without realizing the fact immediately. It makes your thinking much less vague than if you thought silently, increases your vocabulary, always keeps pace with your ideas, and requires practically no attention.

It may be objected that silent thinking itself is put in unspoken words. But this is not true. Part of silent thinking consists of unspoken words, but part of it consists of images, concepts and attitudes which pass through our minds and which we do not take the trouble to name. In silent thinking, too, there are also what appear to be occasional dead stops. All these processes drift into each other indefinably and are unrecognizable. When we talk we realize whether our images or concepts are vague or definite by our ability to name them, and we realize when our thought comes to a ^ dead stop' by the fact that we miss the sound of our own voice.

[...] Talking has one disadvantage — it cannot always be used. To practice it, you must either lock yourself up in your room, or sit alone in a forest or field, or walk along unfrequented streets and by-ways. You can by no means allow any one to hear or see you talking to yourself. If you are caught doing this some asinine idiot is sure to mistake you for one.

For me it helps to solidify and make things explicit. However when you need to chase after foggiest thoughts and manage "seeing the forest in the trees" not so much.

I had this really weird conflict about whether I free up my thougth processes to be free from verbal structure and learn the associated thinking skills. It seemed that verbal forms would be too "clunky" and the precice definitions would under and overstate what I "meant" very often. And beside a lot of important thinking will anyway take place as non-verbal thoughts, having concious introspective acceess to that space was very tempting. I ended up going free-form but I am not sure I am happy with my choice.

It seems that I am at some places using what a mounts to heuristics while the role could be taken up by an algorythm. For a lot of thought processes there is no way to "check via the tedious and slow method" as the weird computations genuinely allow different kinds of operations than verbal forms would (+ no nice mappings between them for the intermediate stages). This might introduce a lot of sloppy thinking althought there is an idea that if really needed following the "spirit" of the thougths will lead to the correct details. However in practise I get sufficient results to base what I need to do without ever attending to the details.

What I would expect with explicit verbal thinking is greater intermind operablility. The processes you use are more likely to be supported on other minds too. However I would expect the thought space to be somewhat smaller. Thoughts can be taken more "as is" in separate chunks disregarding their context. One way of positively framing this is that the rate of correct thoughts per overall thoughts is high. However multiparadigmatic and very comprehensive thoughts become relatively expensive if not outright ruled out. A negative framing would be that the thoughts you can be right about is very small /reduces in size. It may also be harder to come up with thoughts with multiple parts needed to be created on the fly. Ie tweaking one concept is easy but tweaking / creating a concept system becomes hard.

I would guess that the expliciation effect would allow to extract from your brain more. I would however be pessimistic on how it affects your psyche structure and mental habits, both long term effects.A good harvest but poor growth soil.

How did you learn to think without verbal structure? That sounds very interesting and possibly useful.

I never had a goal of learning to think without verbal structure. I would just be thinking very hard and in long marathon sessions. Then I would find the smallest nuances and distinctinos matter, a lot like collding particles with gigatons of energy to find out that a mass with vanishing quantity seems to be missing.

I would find that I made some interference when pressed and I couldn't attribute it to any formal process. Search for the motivation for the alien thoguhts usual found a formal process that would be sympathetic to the end result. If it happened quickly enough I wouldhave just thought that I must have had thought taht thought wityh words as i can treat it afterwards as being equivalent to a verbal argument. However when this happened often enough I noticed that there was a delay or rather a small time that I didn't have any verbal representation but my thinking didn't seem to break down: I would still be confident that such an explanation would come forth but I could not be honest in beliefing that the representation would come/be first and the functionality second. It was as if the program was executing first and then later the source code would be written. In theory there is no snowball chance in hell for it to work like that but having empirical firsthand evidence that my brain didn't melt down or divide by zero, I knew I would need to hear the story the evidence was telling instead of the explanation I was used to give.

This behaviour was most apparent where multiple trains of thought could be given a sympathetic backing. If you do a math homework, the middle steps don't matter (or atleast should not). You can just omit the middle and pretnd they don't exist (the issue on which level of omission is appropriate). But when there are multiple valid options such as what TV channel to watch next what middle steps are triggered will "matter", a view where they get omitted would be probabilitistic. Having such a juncture point and treating your "middle steps" as a black box as correlating the outcome to external facttors can give clues what goes on in the black box. "I pick a channel" isn't one elementary action but "I pick a channel in the morning" and "I pick a channel when tired" will come two distinct but more well defined operations. And hold you have deduced that the alertness level seems to be a relevant factor in this process.

WhenI gathered this kind of correlation data on when a certain process when one way instead of another it became more essential to predicting on what kind sof thoughts were in my head. When I would be angry I would disagree. The content of the arguement I was disagreeing with didn't seem to be a relevant component like the tiredness in the channel switching. You could call this "bias" and try to fighht it but I was more interestyed in learnign what I do than trying to force it in to some "correct" flow. So I didn't distrub the object of study from its natural habitat too much.

Later on when I was familiar with these "contextdriven malfunction junctions" I started noticing correlations where the behaviour served me. When I was listening to a reputable speaker sometimes a tingling would appear. I later came to know it with the name "doubt". I didn't have whatever internal courage to come to mismatcing conclusions with a respected speaker. But at some level i was aware of this. And querying my brain on "what I belief about this issue" did not prompt my own reasoning to give it's input but only say waht the respectable speaker would say.

It was important that I first had the feeling that I didn't understand or could not label and then only identified it's conditions of generation and the role it served in my emotional eco(or ego?)system. Then it became clear on what it is to halfunderstand something. I could understanf that without reservation I would confidently belief X. But I could recognise that I was not confidently beliefing X. The tingle wasn't anything too explicit (you could guess that it was about the context grouping of the triggers) but I could identify if the "same kind" of tingle would appear and tell it appart from other "tingles" even if I was completely at a complete loss on assigning any attributes to the tingles.

I woudl then find that I didn't have a "spide sense" but taht my "honesty sense" could tingle or my "brutality sense" could tingle. Then it became clear taht there is room for great improvement. Lots of the tingles wiring to each other were very naive and as if set there by a mad man. And crucailly once I was familiar enough wit them to give names suggestive of tehir fucntion in my mind I could and would rearrange their realtionships without it being effortfull. It wasn't a issue of one side having one agenda and the other having other conflicting agenda. If I was tired I didn't want to watch a lenghty documentary. So no part of me fought for that. "the struggle for remote" was gone. Every tingle in me got it's needs served systematically instead of them fighting over scarce random resources in a free-for-all. The implication was that there were "emotional ecosystem f-ups" that had no other reason for their existence than not being spotted by anything. I had micromadness. But then I had stumbled with unheard technology. One could become less insane, more sane, more wise. And while I would want to state it here I won't bother arguing about it, but feel it will serve to be mentioned in the same go. Wisdom and intelligence/knowledge are different things. You can be poor in one and rich in other. Wisdom has a use. You can be deficient in wisdom. They have the property that they support each others growth which for many purposes makes it not that important to differentiate between them. If you explicitly try to convert you are usually wildly successful.

And that was where I was lucky. Me being interested in the technical validity of my thought lead me to gather information that was relevant to my psyches functional upkeep. I would not have put much faith in mushy fuzzy shades to get information processed at face value. But I learnt in my discovery process why they must have these properties (and indeed that they still are a down side that they are fuzzy). If offered without explanation I would have rejected it as humanistic mumbo jumbo. I was a "hostile investigator". It was like immersing yourslef in the letter of the law so much that eventually you get the spirit of it. What I have learned has not lessened the worries I feel about "humanistic" thought. But I have found that both technical "hard" people and "soft" are both right in their areas of expertise. What is the pity is that they try to impose their views where they have no good ground or reason to comment ie their equivalent of micromadness. They love to point out the deficiencies of the other, but always omit to try to provide a solution that would satisfy the full set of criteria for both branches. This kind of "dual wielding" is hard, I am not the least surprised that the "synthesis field" has not yet emerged.

note: I would like to note that "choosing to see it as bias" is a form of self-vionlence and an error in the "soft branch". Yes I know this can be generalised to an argument why the whole "bias moment" is destructive. In the same vein "winnnig a battle overyourself" where you spend effort to get yourself changed is only a very shallow solution, like making a stronger steel kettle rather than tuning down the temperature. What I have described uses increase in understanding as the pain by which we get gains. It is comparatively binary, you can't do it halfway. If you don't do it competely you will get a strange outcome taht has boundary conditions where it fails and this feels different than "falling short". Like being able to write an essay on it but not being able to apply it or vise versa.

to answer the question I stumbled upon a lead where thought without verbal structure was neccesary for the analysis

I've sometimes been in the habit of talking into my phone, which conveniently removes the social stigma as long as no one is close enough to hear what you're saying. Taking walks helps. You can either record yourself or not—I find that talking into an inert phone feels awkward while recording myself makes me feel a little self-conscious. I never did find a method I was completely comfortable with, which might be why I don't do it anymore.

Anyway, I'm generally a fan of self-talk / private speech. I think it's a good way to put your thoughts through a BS detector, or at least so goes my theory: since you're hearing the words aloud you interpret the message as if someone else were saying it and so you hold it to a higher standard.

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?

I have always call this "using the air as buffer memory".

ADDED: Actually it doesn't just utilise the phonological loop but allows to feed thoughts through a loop than the much longer than intra-brain loops. Longer turn-around-time may allow more complexly interrelated patterns fire up (in response to the spoken word) and stabilize making them available for further introspection.

I don't know about talking to myself, but I do find describing things or concepts to someone else (almost always in text rather than spoken) helps me understand them better. I suspect it's the act of articulation itself that provides the benefit. So it wouldn't surprise me if speaking to oneself was just as good as speaking to someone else for the purpose.

While I don't know how related it is, I am reminded of this article on the health benefits of expressive writing.

(edit: Fixed link)

I talk through proofs with myself sometimes -- it totally helps.

As a negative data point, while I do talk to myself regularly, I find it frequently magnifies my neuroses (social anxiety) rather than help me manage decisions appropriately.

What are you saying when you do that?

If you're verbalizing your neuroses, I would expect that to make them worse. If you were verbalizing something helpful, such as new post-neurotic beliefs acquired in CBT, I would expect that to alleviate those neuroses. Am I wrong?

Trying to weigh what the right decisions to make in a given circumstance, generally. Which has the usual side-effect of making the possibility that I'm acting suboptimally more available, feeding the neurosis. This happens even when I attempt to frame things as "What would unanxious VAuroch do?", generally by massively overcompensating and swinging back and forth.

I have no new post-neurotic beliefs, as neither I nor my (CBT-using) therapist has yet arrived at a diagnosis more specific than 'probably some variant of social anxiety with some comorbidity', so I don't know what would help, and have not tested things.

What about talking to your rational self? It seems like this accomplishes the benefits of talking to yourself and improves upon some of them.

Personally I don't expect this to be of much use to me. I find the task of translating thoughts into words to be more strenuous than it is for others, and so I expect this to be more distracting than helpful. I played games where I tried to subvocalise all of my thoughts the way some people have interior monologues and they support this conclusion. I believe I have a fairly good working memory (for instance, I can play blind chess) and so I don't as as much value in an external aid. Other people are commenting based on their own personal experience and feelings, so I think I can trust my own gut feeling in terms of how this will work out for me.

Maybe applicable: Mind and Society by Lev Vygotsky has something on children first talking about their actions and then (thereby?) understanding them.

So, what do you think? Useful?

Yes! (The same goes for stream-of-consciousness notes in text format, which has the advantage of bing doable regardless of who's in earshot, usually.)

It's frustrating how weird this is culturally, because then my choices are either (1) don't, (2) don't when anyone is in earshot, or (3) put up with the social consequences. Which, in practice, means I really cannot stand being trapped with people for extended periods of time (unless they are super awesome mcunderstandy people, but those are rare).

A case that doesn't seem to have been brought up is practising exposition in a verbal context, such as presenting a speech, making a case or forming an argument. I believe a common talking-to-oneself habit is rehearsal of things you'd like to say, or like to have said in the past. Hijacking this habit to rehearse exposition of useful stuff, as opposed to ruminating over inane and useless things, is a modestly successful project of mine.

I had a teacher say one time, "I talk to myself to find out what I'm thinking."

Talking takes a lot of time - perhaps imagining to be explaining your work to somebody is already sufficient? It works for me, and is a lot faster.

Most of the time I'm sitting in front of a computer (modern equivalent of pen and paper), so talking out loud seems to be rather unnecessary.

It isn't necessary, it is a luxury that does seem to be helping programmers like us. Compare Rubber duck debugging, which Antiochus brought up in this very thread.

This seems unavoidable during strenuous physical activity, which seems related to

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.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

For me the benefit of talking out loud would be more a matter of focus. I have an inner conversation anyway and so it would be just saying the same words as I am already saying on the inside (which might slow me down, but not an issue when the problem is difficult). The real point is that if I say the words then I am only going to say the words related to the problem. The words related to the distraction will not be said out loud. Therefore, making an effort to speak out loud means that there will be more focus on the problem because allowing my focus to wander onto distractions more obviously results in silence.

I definitely notice that it is at times when I am most struggling against a distraction that I start talking through my problems out loud.

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