Talk to yourself

Communication  Learning
19 June, 2017

The surprising benefits of having a chat with yourself – greater clarity, recall and focus

I find it delightful to quietly watch my five-year-old daughter, Imara, play by herself (that is, when she is not bothering her older two siblings :). Imara can spend hours talking to her toys, stuffed animals, dolls or characters from her books. She asks them questions and answers back on their behalf. Her conversations are usually connected to her most recent learning. If she is learning about the ocean, then all her characters are underwater creatures. Whens she was learning about India’s neighbouring countries, her dolls were travelling to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar.

I’m sure that you have seen your kids or other children around you do the same – playing in their imaginary world, talking to themselves, learning and exploring through this process.

And it’s not just young children. You would have observed students pace the corridors of schools, repeating what they are trying to learn, in a bid to memorise it. Many continue to do it much later while prepping for a big presentation or interview. And you would have noticed many athletes talk to themselves while playing – shaking their heads, chiding themselves or grunting loudly.

Several studies now show that talking out loud can be a powerful way to learn and engage with yourself. If urban legends are to be believed, then Einstein himself was a practitioner. While growing up, he used to repeat his sentences to himself very softly.

Drawing from that, my message this week is on how talking out loud can be a powerful way to learn.

Multiple researches that involve people memorising lists of words silently versus reading them out loud, show how the latter set remember them much better. Similarly, people who perform tasks by repeating their instructions and thoughts, do much better than those who follow through silently. Why does this happen? For a variety of reasons.

Talking out loud forces us to slow down, think more deliberately and form connections. As a result, we end up not only learning more deeply, but also improve our ability to apply that learning to other situations.

Take a moment to understand what happens when you talk out loud. There’s a fair bit of science behind why this is so impactful:

1. You pause to think

When you speak out loud and verbalise your thoughts, you force yourself to slow down. Just the act of verbalising makes you pause. This is critical, because by doing so, you are allowing yourself to immerse for a while in the experience. By extension (and perhaps without knowing it), you are now forcing yourself to think harder than you would have otherwise.

2. The “production effect”

When you verbalise words, you are tapping into your memory pathways linked to when you have seen them before. You are also linking to the auditory memory of having heard them before. And your memory starts forming links to the ‘production’ that goes into this verbalisation. Hence, the production effect of the memory.

You’re bound to remember things that you find more memorable or connected to; things with links and histories. And this process allows you to do just that, by making what would have been just another set of words, more distinctive. So, you remember them better.

3. You use emotion

There’s emotion linked to the act of speaking out. And whether you are pensive, curious, frustrated, excited, happy or even angry, that emotion is powerful because it triggers memory. It adds significantly to the production effect. You are much more likely to remember things that you have spoken out with deliberation and emotion.

4. You ask why

Ever been told to talk yourself through a problem? It’s because articulating your thoughts out loud and questioning helps you clarify and organise them better.

Ulrich Boser, in the Harvard Business Review article, ‘Talking to Yourself (Out Loud) Can Help You Learn’, shares how speaking out loud triggers self-explanation. This can result in impulsive curiosity that may not have surfaced otherwise. Give it a try. Speak out ideas, notes from a meeting, a problem you’re grappling with. The act of conversation itself will propel you to ask follow up questions. As you speak out your assumptions, you will find yourself asking what you are doing, why you are doing it and how could you do it better. You will pause, think harder, look for answers, then pick it up again.

Many software programmers for example, use the ‘rubber ducky test’ to debug code. It is exactly what the name suggests – explaining code line by line out loud to a rubber duck. The method, which draws on the connection between speaking out loud and improved understanding, consequently helps call out any flaws in the code.

5. Summarising helps

Summarising is a proven great way to self-explain. By repeating what you want to remember or think through, you are creating a pattern to learn. Think about times when you have verbalised the summary of a meeting for a colleague who missed it or when you wrap up key pointers at the end of a presentation – having to articulate the summary reinforces and helps you recall things that could’ve slipped by. That’s why you will find this approach used repeatedly across different formats.

6. You stay focused

Speaking out loud just makes what you’re learning or solving for more ‘real’ in a sense. While you are pausing, questioning, problem-solving, you’re also much more focused. You are conversing, instructing and explaining aspects to yourself. This is why you may have observed sportspersons talking away to themselves while playing. It keeps them from getting distracted by the stress. Like Paloma Mari-Beffa explains in her article, ‘Is talking to yourself a sign of mental illness?, says: “Our ability to generate explicit self instructions is actually one of the best tools we have for cognitive control, and it simply works better when said aloud.”

So, the next time you are grappling with a problem or preparing for that big meeting, try talking things out to yourself loud. You may surprise yourself by how much it helps.


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