Why Talking to Yourself Isn't the Least Bit Crazy

Talking to yourself can help shift emotions, or dig deeper into the reasons for your feelings. . (Photo: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

When I was a kid, I'd often come downstairs for breakfast and find my grandmother in the kitchen talking to herself, often going over what she was going to do that day. I thought it was the weirdest thing. Even though nobody else was around, hearing her would make me blush.

Back then, I thought that talking to yourself was something mentally ill people did. Healthy people didn't talk aloud when nobody else was around, did they?

In fact, science has now shown that talking to yourself has a number of benefits. It can improve self-image and confidence levels. So as goofy as Stuart Smalley's messages about being "good enough, and smart enough" were, science says that it's beneficial to remind yourself of those things. Verbally. Out loud.

This positive self-talk can be especially effective when you're faced with a speaking engagement or a conversation with your boss or some other stressful situation.

“It’s not an irrational thing to do,” Gary Lupyan, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, who has studied the subject, told the BBC. “You don’t know everything you’re going to say — you can even surprise yourself.”

Psychologists say that we're regularly in dialogue with ourselves anyway; saying something we're thinking is just an extension of thoughts, as this video explains in more detail (including tips on how to do it better):

The perks of talking out loud

Lupyan headed up a recent experiment called label feedback in which he tested one of the theories of talking to oneself. Participants looked at objects on a computer screen (say, a banana). Some of them were told to say the name of the object out loud, while others just looked at it. Later, when they were asked what they had seen, people who spoke aloud could recognize more of the objects they had seen more quickly when presented with them again.

"... verbal labels can change ongoing perceptual processing — for example, actually hearing 'chair' compared to simply thinking about a chair can temporarily make the visual system a better 'chair detector,'" Lupyan and his co-author Daniel Swingley wrote in the abstract to the article. He explains that saying the name of something out loud exaggerates what typically happens in the brain when you're retrieving a memory. “Language boosts that process,” Lupyan says.

What's the real-life application? Well, whatever it is you need to remember, say it aloud. The floor where you leave your car in a parking garage. The items you need to pick up at the grocery store. The name of that new show your friend thinks you'll love. Say these things, and you'll be more likely to remember.

Carrying on a conversation about yourself to yourself can also help you reduce stress. According to a joint study conducted by Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, talking to yourself in the third person, or "third-person self-talk" as the researchers call it, can give you a different perspective on your problems. So instead of saying, "Why am I upset?", I should be asking myself, "Why is Starre upset?"

This may sound a little self-absorbed — talking in the third person makes me sound like royalty, after all — but as one of the researchers explains, it could really make a difference. "Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain," Jason Moser, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State, said in a statement. "That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions."

Researchers tested this concept by studying brain activity during two different experiments. In the first experiment, they showed people disturbing and neutral images. When reacting to disturbing images, participants' emotional brain activity decreased very quickly when they discussed themselves in the third person. For the second experiment, participants were asked to asked to reflect on a painful past experience using first and third person language. When using third person language, there was less activity in the region of the brain associated with painful emotional experiences.

Keep on talking

Talking to yourself can also be a way to answer a thorny question. If you have a genuine dilemma, try arguing one side then the other. Hearing the two sides out loud might give you a new perspective on the problem.

If you're upset with someone in your life, instead of letting them have it, consider taking your verbal ire out on a tree or a pillow. You may end up feeling better and may realize you don't need to speak to the person after all. Or it may lead to greater insights about why you're so upset.

And if you do end up needing to speak with the person, practicing exactly what you want to say — aloud — can help ensure you communicate what you mean.

Want to focus on a given task? Talking to yourself can help there, too. As psychologist Palomi Mari-Beffa writes of her own research in New York magazine, "... talking out loud actually improves control over a task, above and beyond what is achieved by inner speech. This helps explain why so many sports professionals, especially tennis players, frequently talk to themselves during competitions, often at crucial points in a game."

The science is clear now. Whether you're stressed, angry, trying to finish a task, remember something or looking for a confidence boost, talking it through with the one who knows you best can help.