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No, you're not crazy! Talking to yourself can boost your brain power ...

Published:Wednesday | July 10, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Anastasia Cunningham, Health Coordinator

The wallpaper on my work computer reads, 'Of course I talk to myself ... sometimes I need expert advice'. Seriously, though, most people do talk to themselves on a regular basis, but the general sentiment has always been that such a practice is a sure sign of mental disorder. You've gone mad, crazy, loco. You're just plain nuts.

But here's the kicker. You may be smarter than everyone else. According to studies, talking to yourself can actually benefit thinking and perception and boost your brainpower. Giving yourself verbal messages can help you learn and perform at your best, increase your concentration, and improve performance, the studies showed.

Talking out loud is simply vocalising your internal thought process or dialogue.

Experts are revealing that giving yourself verbal instructions helps to enhance attention and keeps you focused while reducing distractions. It also helps you to be more decisive and allows you to control your thoughts and cognitive and emotional reactions, helping you stay on task.

Another sensory input

Dr Aggrey Irons, consultant psychiatrist and president of the Medical Association of Jamaica, agrees with the findings, noting that what the practice does is add another sensory input that the brain will process and add to what is already there. However, he cautioned that it depends on the kinds of conversations you have with yourself.

"There are two kinds of conversations: one where you are literally giving yourself feedback, where you are literally thinking out loud. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is very helpful and adds another line of sensory input," Irons told Your Health.

"But when you begin to respond to voices from within, then that is a sign of madness, it indicates auditory hallucination."

Another benefit of talking to yourself, Irons also noted, is that if you find yourself in solitary confinement, it can help tomaintain your sanity and keep you focused.

"From a healthy perspective, talking to yourself by generating one's own thoughts and then reflecting on them is just one way of learning," he said.

BRAIN ACTS FASTER

To test whether speaking to oneself was actually beneficial, Dr Gary Lupyan, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, and his colleague Dr Daniel Swingley devised a set of experiments.

Using volunteers who had to search for specific items, in one experiment, persons were shown 20 pictures of various objects and asked to look for a specific one, such as a banana. In half of the trials, participants were asked to repeatedly say what they were looking for out loud to themselves; in the others, they were asked to remain silent.

Detailing their findings in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, they found that self-directed speech helped people find objects more quickly by about 50 to 100 milliseconds. (The average time it took participants to find an item was 1.2 to 2 seconds.)

The psychologists revealed that while conducting the study, they found that it was, in fact, a general practice for persons to talk to themselves, most doing so at least every few days, and many report doing so on an hourly basis.

Lupyan said the study was inspired in part by his own self-talk.

"I'll often mutter to myself when searching for something in the refrigerator or supermarket shelves," he said.

"The general take-home point is that language is not just a system of communication, but I'm arguing it can augment perception, augment thinking."

He added, "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.

"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."

Research has also shown that self-directed speech can help guide children's behaviour, with kids often talking to themselves step-by-step through tasks such as tying their shoelaces, as if reminding themselves to focus on the job at hand.

In another study of students learning to throw darts in a gym class, Athanasios Kolovelonis and his colleagues at the University of Thessaly in Greece found that self-talk is most effective when incorporated into a cycle of thought and action. First comes forethought, when you set a goal for yourself and make a plan for how to get there. That's followed by performance, when you enact the plan to the best of your ability. Last comes self-reflection, when you carefully evaluate what you've done and adjust your plan for the next time.

Lupyan said future work could scan the brain at the same time as these experiments are conducted, to see what brain circuits are involved.

BENEFITS

  • A great self-motivational tool and helps to boost your self-esteem.
  • Become your number one fan. Know your strengths and compliment yourself frequently.
  • When something seems impossible, repeatedly tell yourself you can.
  • When depressed or feel the blues coming on, give yourself a pep talk.
  • Set goals and repeatedly tell yourself you will achieve them.
  • Talk out a problem and you'd be amazed at how quickly you will arrive at a solution.
  • Very good at improving memory.
  • Reading aloud helps with proper pronunciation and articulation; helps to pick up errors quicker.

WHEN TO SEEK HELP

Of course, there is a stage in talking to yourself when you definitely need a check-up from the neck up. According to Irons, whenever you start responding to voices in your head, that's a clear sign that it's time to seek professional help.

"At this stage, it will be way past time to get some help," said the psychiatrist.

yourhealth@gleanerjm.com