Having our speech and thoughts operate in unison is a cognitive talent we often take for granted as adults. Before the age of three, our thoughts or inner speech, as pioneering Marxist developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to them, are not actually connected to our outer speech.
One of the ways we learn how to align the two is a process known as ‘egocentric speech.’ Egocentric speech is a form of self-directed speech, employed by toddlers before the development of verbal sentences. Because their brains are unable to fully comprehend the experiences and perspectives of people that aren’t themselves, children between the ages of three and five often indulge in auditory self-guidance that helps them better comprehend what they’re doing, enhance memory skills and regulate their emotions.
A young child in duress after losing a favorite toy might mimic their mom or dad’s voice while addressing themselves in the third person as a tool of self-assurance. The same applies to the performing of elementary tasks. For the most part, we stop using private speech by the time we enter primary school even though research suggests that the benefits of talking to ourselves in the third person still persists well into full adulthood.
Self-talk facilities and cognitive control
Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, are easily the most well-known voices on inner voices. They disagreed on several key aspects of egocentrism in toddlers, but both have supplied essential contributions to modern research on the subject. Most recently, psychology researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan produced a study published in the Nature journal, Scientific Reports, that extends the literature on private speech, by exploring the cognitive benefits of third-person self-talk in adults.
“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,” said Jason Moser, MSU associate professor of psychology and the lead researcher behind the new report. “That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.”
Participants analyzed in the study were shown a series of graphic and disturbing images-some of which drew allusions to fire-arm induced suicide. These subjects had their brain activity monitored by an electroencephalograph. The study pool was asked to react to the images provided by the researchers: once in the first person and then in the third.
Invariably, after the participants attempted to calm themselves down by referring to themselves in the third person, their brian activity decreased dramatically as quickly as one second later. This effect was demonstrated again in the following experiment, wherein subjects were asked to reflect on dramatic events that occurred in their past.
From the report: “Brain imaging results from Study 2 showing that reflecting on negative experiences using “I” instead of one’s own name is associated with significantly more activity in a region of the medial prefrontal cortex identified as playing a role in self-referential processing in a region of interest (ROI colored in blue; activations observed within a priori ROI are overlaid in yellow-orange coloring) and (B) whole-brain analysis.”
Until very recently, the private speech was chiefly associated with psychological unrest, which may explain why people are hesitant to engage in it at large. Experts have already known that auditory self-guidance boosts information retention and focus, but its relevance to emotional development in adults had not received scholarly attention hitherto.
“If this ends up being true – we won’t know until more research is done – there are lots of important implications these findings have for our basic understanding of how self-control works, and for how to help people control their emotions in daily life,” co-author Ethan Kross remarked in a press statement.
The new study can read in full in the online journal Scientific Reports, and was authored by Jason S. Moser, Adrienne Dougherty, Whitney I. Mattson, Benjamin Katz, Tim P. Moran, Darwin Guevarra, Holly Shablack, Ozlem Ayduk, John Jonides Marc G. Berman and Ethan Kross.