The benefits of talking to yourself

Calgary Herald, Feb 3, 2018: Once upon a time, if you saw a solitary figure walking toward you talking loudly and gesturing wildly, you’d give serious thought to crossing the street. But these days, thin white wires running from their ears to their phones — and the entire world — mean the chatterbox may be on a conference call with Shanghai or comparing notes on the Crown with Nan. The ubiquity of people talking hands-free on their phones has given cover to those of us who walk down the street talking loudly and gesturing wildly without a phone — those of us who talk to ourselves. We are legion. I suspect many of my self-talking brethren are, like me, unaware that we’re babbling away until someone says, ‘Pardon?’ or gives us one of those wide-eyed looks that says ‘I should have crossed the street.’

The technical terms for talking to yourself include ‘self-talk’ and ‘private speech’ and psychologists have spent decades studying how and why we do it. We start talking to ourselves as little kids, at about age two, and carry on those conversations for several years. It’s an important part of how we learn to communicate, says Adam Winsler, an applied developmental psychologist at George Mason University in Virginia. His studies show that preschoolers tend to do better on certain tasks when they talk themselves through it. “This is when language comes inside,” says Winsler. “As these two communication processes merge, children use private speech in the transition period. It’s a critical period for children, and defines us as human beings.”

Sadly, when a lot of children get to school, they zip their self-talking lip. But for those of us who manage to keep spouting soliloquies at recess and beyond, there may be further benefits as we get older. As we face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and other crap, saying things out loud can help us grown-ups process thoughts and feelings, make us feel better and give us a shot or two of confidence. Of course, that only works if you say the right things. Calling yourself a stupid nit over and over likely won’t do the trick.

There is another simple hack to superior self-talk — using the second or third person. Studies show when people say ‘you’ or ‘he/she/they/poor Yorick’ in talking about themselves to themselves, they are better able to control their feelings and feel calmer and more confident. Talking in the second or third person distances us from whatever issue is at hand and lets us think more clearly, suggests psychologist Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan. “Not only does non-first-person self-talk help people perform better under stress and help them get control of their emotions, it also helps them reason more wisely,” he says. “Our findings are just a small part of a much larger, ongoing stream of research on self-talk which is proving to have far-reaching implications.”

Me myself and I talked a lot about some of those implications recently. During January’s cold snap, an electrical problem in my car knocked out the radio. No singing badly, no yelling at radio hosts to shut up and just play the song already. Just me, a lot of private speech and one day the ‘yip yip yip’ sounds of a coyote in a park. I had to wonder: could the coyote be engaging in private coyote speech? Just yipping away for the fun of it?

“I believe based on the similarity in brain structures that we should not rule out anything we might do as a human as something an animal might do,” says Shelley Alexander, a geography professor at the University of Calgary and expert on coyotes. “I would argue for mammals (at least) based on brain structure similarities to ours and the fact most mammals can complex problem-solve, have memories, experience emotions parallel to us, etc., that many of the higher order mammals do in fact ‘talk to themselves.’ It just may not be in the way we understand.” Now there’s a thought worth talking about.


I haven’t heard any coyotes yip yipping from behind my wheel lately. The cold snap ended, my car got a new ignition switch and I’m back in the driver’s seat turning up Bohemian Rhapsody. I’ve been singing along to that baby since junior high and I still have no idea what Freddie Mercury is on about. Apparently, he never did offer much of an explanation for the more cryptic bits of the epic mini-opera (talking to you Scaramouche, Scaramouche, Galileo, Figaro, Magnifico-o-o-o-o). The rest of the guys in Queen haven’t revealed much about the meaning of the song either, except to suggest that Mercury was working through some of his own private issues with a few of the lyrics. Maybe the beautiful, brilliant musician was talking to himself.

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