Just Seven Things

Exploring why and how we do what we do, and how we can do it better

Why Talking to Yourself Might be The Highest Form of Intelligence

Network Neurons 1 - Gerard79

Network Neurons 1 - Gerard79

Have you ever found yourself asking someone a question you’ve been puzzling over for a long time, only to come up with the answer half way through asking the question?

At Madgex, the developers refer back to an old beer advert for John Smiths when trying to solve problems. They find that when they need help, just calling someone over and explaining the problem to them often gives them the answer half way through. The cardboard cut-out of the man in the advert to stand behind them is thought to be all that is required when a coding or logic issue arises rather than a real person.

So, what’s happening and how can this observation shed light on why vision and goal setting works?

At its core, when you ask someone something you consciously articulate it. You explain it and frame the issue for the person. Most importantly however, you explain it and (re)frame it for yourself. You give direction to your other-than-conscious very clearly. Now you may question why actually articulating something gives any different result to just sitting there unspeakingly struggling with the question.

Two things. First, in giving words to (or writing onto paper) an issue and adding the clarity and clarifications required to make something understandable to someone else has the same impact on your other-than-conscious. You may think that you’re being clear about an issue in your head, but you rarely are. You’re more likely to be half articulating the issue and then immediately looping into the  same consciously derived result you keep on getting which is failing to remove the problem or blocker.

And this is the second point. By talking to yourself (again, words or paper is good – words may be better because of how unusual you may experience the sensation), your conscious brain gives a clear set of instructions to your other-than-conscious brain. You ask yourself the question and often answer it very quickly yourself because the totality of your resources (conscious and unconscious) are now engaged to a common endeavour (and in most cases, you knew the answer to the problem: it just needed unlocking by you being clear with yourself)

Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor takes the essence of this a big step further in her book, My Stroke of Insight, when she says ‘From my perspective, the focused human mind is the most powerful instrument in the universe, and through the use of language, our left brain is capable of directing (or impeding) our physical healing and recovery

On a connected use of articulation (left brain/ right brain), related to my previous post on  rules for personal productivity, some great advice from Harvard Business on How to Write To-Do Lists that Work – the second section is all about providing sufficient detail in a ‘to-do’ on a to do list as you would if you were instructing a personal assistant.

Other linked posts:

Questioning Yourself as a Higher Form of Talking to Yourself? – does the apparent weakness of self-questioning hide a better problem solving technique?

Talking to Myself Again – communicating to yourself as stress relief

Creativity and the Business Brain (and why most of us should be sacked) – talking to yourself is good for framing the blockers, with diffuse day-dreaming as the really creative stuff?

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45 thoughts on “Why Talking to Yourself Might be The Highest Form of Intelligence

  1. Another way of looking at this is that it is not the verbal reformulation of the problem that is important but rather the unfocussing on the problem itself. This slightly looser explanation also caters for the “making a cup of coffee” or “having a good crap” approach to problem solving. Don’t get me wrong, I think verbalising a problem is nearly always a good approach but I don’t think it’s the only thing that is going on when you are struggling to escape from a “local minimum”. It is worth noting that people with the bloodiest foreheads tend to be able to explain in great length and depth why they perceive that they are heading for trepanation.

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  3. Plato follower on said:

    Yeah, it’s called maieutics. Greeks knew it 2500 years ago.

  4. it works for finding lost tools too, that is, you call them & then wait for a reply. If they get too long winded though it’s time to get rid of them.

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  7. CrazyCatLady on said:

    Ingenuity or paranoid schizophrenia?

  8. You wrote;

    “By talking to yourself (again, words or paper is good – words may be better because of how unusual you may experience the sensation), your conscious brain gives a clear set of instructions to your other-than-conscious brain.”

    I am a big believer in this. In fact a lot of the thinking I have done over the last year or two involves asking myself “how I feel about something” and then noticing the reaction.

    Then asking myself “what do I have to believe in order to experience this feeling”

    Many things come up that I normally would have never thought!

  9. marilyn on said:

    I talk to myself like this example: “Wow, what did I do with my attitude to my daughter…well, she will be okay cuz she knows what to do and I’m not going to enable her”.

  10. There are few facts our conscience doesn’t allow us to disclose that also makes the problem statement incomplete for others. We know the answer for ourselves but seeking an answer from others is mostly to get rid of our dilemma and also to get some unseen facts that we are not clear of.

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    • That`s quite a good theory actually, I’m quite in agreement that Vygotsky’s inner speech theory should be pushed forward in terms of use.

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  15. Emil Coué and Jesus Christ suggested the same thing already long ago!

  16. I usually think of this kind of issue as being personality. In Myers-Briggs typology, Extroverts thinks out loud and Introverts think on their own; It depends on where you find your energy. As for myself, I find that designing complex processes are often dealt better with on my own, and that the interruptions of others’ ideas are counterproductive, while new solutions are best handled in a group or by talking with others.

  17. We know the answer for ourselves but seeking an answer from others is mostly to get rid of our dilemma and also to get some unseen facts that we are not clear of.

  18. In fact a lot of the thinking I have done over the last year or two involves asking myself

  19. What I’ll do when I want to see how well I understand a concept is mentally pretend I’m teaching a class on the subject. I’ll even have the ‘students’ ask questions. It is amazing how well this works in finding deficiencies in my understanding of a topic.

  20. andyy on said:

    In our lab, as programmers, we “Ask Grandma”. Formulate how to ask a layman the question and lo and behold, the answer, (more often than you might think), comes to you. Magic!

  21. rsalazar on said:

    Using onself to answer questions relates to using the local help on an application. Online help is easier to obtain and most of the time expert advice will be obtained. I think the networking between brains is what make the human brain limitless. But that dependency is diminishing our brain power. Proof of this is how this article inspired us to write our 5 line opinion. Human nature is to interact and ask. Self thinking is left for weird geniouses we did not invite to our parties.

    I will unplug from the network and enhance my local help files, more often.

  22. metamemetics on said:

    Good article until you mentioned Jill Bolte, who gave one of the worst psuedo-scientific TED Talks I can recall. It relied on erroneous analogies such as ‘the left brain is a serial processor, the right brain is a parallel processor’ (the whole brain is massively parallel, everywhere) and ignores facts such as the right brain is capable of learning and taking over language processing in children who have had portions of their left brain removed (to treat epilepsy). If you talk about integration of sensory information and awareness, you want to talk about specific brain systems and cortical columns, NOT make monolithic statements about left brain vs. right brain that get overgeneralized into the silly notion of inaccurately labelling people ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain’.

  23. Matt on said:

    “The only problem with talking to yourself is that half the time you know what you’re going to say next.”

  24. Alex on said:

    In university, when learning for exams, I used to obtain the best results (memorizing and understanding and clarifying concepts) when reading the course twice and then walking around the room pretending to teach the course to an imaginary student of mine.

  25. technogeist on said:

    Not one for actually talking out loud with myself. But with my internal voice, having conversations constantly. (usually when there isn’t some irritating song bouncing around my head instead)

    When creating software, it is very helpful to put your thoughts into words, so that when you (or someone else) reads the code, maybe several months or years later it will help restore the faded neural pathways. Also helpful getting yourself out of a mental block before the onset of procrastination.

  26. 1. Is it possible that people who ‘Think Loud’ are better at finding soultions?
    2. This is particularly true for conflict resolution. Defining the conflict correctly (by overwrighting both the sides of the conflict several times) really helps.

  27. One thing about me, when I need to solve a problem, I turn off the lights, close the door, and keep moving in the room while talking to myself loudly. :D

    Thanks for the nice post! :)

  28. David prentice on said:

    Thank god I’m not nuts

  29. Renoda on said:

    Thank you for this information. I know that here lately I have been really stressed and have several issues to deal with both professionally and in my personal life. I have found myself driving down the road talking out my issues out loud and find that I am finding answers to some issues that I was having just by talking it out myself. I was thinking about getting mental assistance because I thought that I was loosing it. Thank you again. I appreciate the posts.

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  31. Hello
    I found that talking to yourself is a major motivation for blogging, check my post please :)
    http://msarra.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/the-blogging-venture/

  32. Thanks for the article, ( Crazy ) is the label I got thanks to my really IGNORANT friend because of this, which really hurts.

  33. I problem solve this way, speaking aloud to myself, fairly often. It works. Writing helps too, but talking through a problem (especially when pacing to some degree) seems to help make all different kinds of relevant connections between facts that I would otherwise overlook through an internal monologue. Great article!

    - web developer / university senior / father / husband / thinker

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  36. wow been talking to myself since young, might just be the smartest guy around :)

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  38. Since I’m working on psychological research that is about to provide scientific evidence that internal dialogue is a good strategy to relief stress I’m very happy finding people who confirm my hypothesis!

  39. I always and have always talked to myself.Well not my self .My inner god.
    Obviously when no one is around for fear of embarrassment.
    It’s strange we are made to feel we are losing the plot or something?
    Going insane is what most people would think?
    I’m intelligent,hold down a very good job,and I think I have common sence than most people,and yes I talk to myself.

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