What Is Self-Talk? Psychologist Explains

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Chatter" by Ethan Kross. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is self-talk? What happens in our brains when we’re engaging in self-talk?

Self-talk is thoughts that take the form of silent words you “hear” in your mind. For most people, it’s a mundane occurrence because it happens automatically. Behind the scenes, however, it’s a complex psychological process.

Keep reading to learn about the phenomenon of self-talk, according to Ethan Kross.

Self-Talk Explained

What is self-talk? According to neuroscientist and psychologist Ethan Kross, self-talk isn’t exactly our conscious thought process. Rather, it’s the voice you “hear” in your mind in the background. In his book Chatter, Kross shares three facts about the psychology of self-talk:

Fact 1: You Can Multitask While Engaging in Self-Talk

According to Kross, you have a system in your brain called the phonological loop that allows you to engage in self-talk while doing other things. Your phonological loop has two jobs it can do simultaneously: 1) It temporarily stores verbal information, such as something you’ve just heard or read, and 2) it allows you to silently think in the form of words.

(Shortform note: Some researchers argue that the phonological loop is an adaptation that early humans evolved because it allowed them to store verbal information in their memory, enabling the development of human language. Language facilitated cooperation among early humans, and cooperation increased their chances of survival. However, these researchers don’t mention self-talk in their theories, which raises the question of whether self-talk itself is evolutionarily advantageous. Perhaps self-talk assisted with language development, supporting Kross’s claim that self-talk aided in early humans’ survival. Alternatively, perhaps our habit of self-talk was just a neutral byproduct of our phonological loop’s other functions.)

Fact 2: Our Self-Talk Is Lightning-Fast

Second, Kross cites a study revealing that our self-talk happens remarkably fast. Our internal voice “speaks” at a rate close to four thousand words per minute. Reading four thousand words aloud would take at least 15 minutes.

Exploring the Speed of Self-talk

Kross reveals the shocking fact that our self-talk happens remarkably fast. However, he doesn’t expand upon how researchers discovered this and what this finding reveals about the differences between self-talk and verbal expression. 

This is how the researchers in the study Kross cites arrived at the figure of four thousand words per minute: First, they recorded how long it took participants to solve a problem silently. Next, participants shared a verbal explanation of the thoughts behind each step in their problem-solving process. Finally, researchers compared the number of words in participants’ verbal explanations to their silent problem-solving rate, concluding that participants averaged four thousand words of explanation per minute of silent problem-solving. 

Why were participants able to do four thousand words’ worth of thinking in only a minute? Researchers offer two possible theories. First, it’s possible that our self-talk is “condensed,” meaning it uses simplified sentence structures and vocabulary that take less time to generate and mentally “hear.” Second, perhaps verbal expression is slower than the rate of self-talk because it takes time to physically form your thoughts into spoken words.

Fact 3: Everyone Engages in Self-Talk

Third, Kross elaborates that everyone engages in self-talk to some degree, even people who don’t express themselves out loud. For instance, deaf signers report having an internal voice.

Varieties of Self-Talk and the Absence of Self-Talk

Kross mentions that deaf signers report having an internal voice, but he doesn’t describe what this internal voice sounds like. Research reveals that deaf signers’ self-talk manifests in a variety of ways. Some report that their self-talk takes a visual form, such as imagining signs from ASL (American Sign Language) or picturing printed words. Other deaf signers report that they “hear” their self-talk in their minds, much like hearing people. Furthermore, some deaf signers claim their self-talk manifests as a combination of these different forms. 

In addition, some research contradicts Kross’s claim that everyone experiences self-talk. For instance, many people with aphantasia—having no capacity for mental visualization—claim that they lack an internal voice. Research suggests that aphantasia doesn’t necessarily hinder a person’s ability to succeed professionally and in life. Pairing this conclusion with evidence that many people with aphantasia lack the capacity for self-talk suggests that lacking self-talk doesn’t necessarily hinder your chance of success, either.

Social and Cultural Forces That Shape Self-Talk

Although our capacity for self-talk is hard-wired into our brains, it’s also shaped by the world outside our heads. Kross argues that our upbringing and culture influence our self-talk. We internalize the voices of those around us, especially those of our parents. Their voices usually reflect larger cultural beliefs. 

For instance, imagine that your culture has the following social norm: Refrain from displaying intense emotions around strangers. While growing up, your parents repeatedly reminded you of this norm. Over time, you internalized their vocal reminders. Now, their words are part of your self-talk, reminding you to be emotionally reserved in public.

(Shortform note: When discussing the science of self-talk, Kross focuses on parents’ influence. Research suggests that other adults, such as teachers, also significantly influence the development of self-talk. For instance, one study reveals that children engage in motivational self-talk during academic tasks by imagining their teachers giving them positive feedback. Given these findings, researchers argue that teacher education programs should train pre-service teachers to thoughtfully praise and motivate their students.)

What Is Self-Talk? Psychologist Explains

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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