That’s right. Talking to yourself may not be so crazy after all. And if you do it while you work, you might actually get more done — or at least be better at certain tasks. Perhaps that’s one reason home-based workers can be more productive. As long as you won’t be disturbing others, don’t shy away from the occasional mumble as you go about your workday. According to a 2012 study published in the Quarterly Journal for Experimental Psychology, talking to oneself can boost cognitive ability. Specifically, researchers measured the impact of self-directed speech on visual search performance.
The study was partially inspired by the self-talk habits of one of the researchers. “I’ll often mutter to myself when searching for something in the refrigerator or supermarket shelves,” Gary Lupyan, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told LiveScience. To test the impact of this kind of self-directed speech, Lupyan and co-author Daniel Swingley ran experiments with volunteers who were directed to search for specific items. According to LiveScience, past research has shown that self-directed speech can help guide behaviors for children, such as tying shoelaces or other step-by-step tasks. In Lupyan and Swingley’s study, the findings suggested the same can be true for adults.
In one experiment, participants were shown images of 20 objects and asked to look for a specific one, such as a banana. The volunteers were split into two groups, with half repeating the name of the item to themselves out loud and the other half staying silent. Self-directed speech helped people find the desired object more quickly. Those in the talking group found the item just 50 to 100 milliseconds faster, but it took participants an average of only about 1.2 to 2 seconds to find the object.
However, in another experiment the researchers conducted, certain items could actually take longer to locate for the self-talking participants. “Speaking to yourself isn’t always helpful — if you don’t really know what an object looks like, saying its name can have no effect or actually slow you down,” Lupyan explained. “If, on the other hand, you know that bananas are yellow and have a particular shape, by saying banana, you’re activating these visual properties in the brain to help you find them.” In a virtual shopping task, participants were shown photos of common supermarket items and asked to locate them. Coke, a common item people can usually picture in their minds, was easier to find with self-directed speech, but “Speed Stick,” a less familiar product, took longer to locate.
For Lupyan, the major takeaway from the study is that language is useful for more than communication; it has a measurable impact on perception and cognition. He hopes further research will be done that involves looking at brain scans while conducting a similar experiment, revealing which parts of the brain are stimulated by self-directed speech.
Positive self-talk has also been shown to boost motivation and self-confidence, provided you speak to yourself with the “you” pronoun rather than “I.” So if you have an important presentation coming up, give yourself some encouragement out loud. When you have an impending deadline, talking yourself through the task at hand could help you improve focus and block out distractions. At the very least, if your are prone to losing things, try calling out the misplaced object’s name as you search for it. Your coworkers or family members might think you’re a little nutty, but you’ll waste less time searching.