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October 3rd, 2010 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychotherapy | No Comments » | 860 views | Send article | Print this Article |

This article discusses possible neuropsychological mechanisms involved in self-talk, as well as its effect on emotional adaptation and experience in general.

An overweight woman has tried every diet conceivable with no lasting results. She finds herself adopting a simple stimulus-response approach to eating, to wit: whenever she is bored, she eats, whenever she is sad, she eats, whenever she is anxious she eats – and of course at meal time she overeats due to the need to manage the anxiety and frustration caused by her inability to control her eating. On one particular morning she is about to indulge in her third coffee roll, but then a sudden impulse crops up. She stops reaching for the roll and says to herself, “I’m not hungry, why the heck am I eating?” She finds that her appetite is diminished momentarily so she continues to cue herself in that way, with frequent  overt “ self-lectures” and finds she can control her appetite more consistently.
A man with insomnia finds himself tossing and turning in the wee hours of them morning. He rolls to one side then another then summons a relaxing thought. An ocean scene. Yet he still cannot get to sleep. It seems each time he invokes a sleep-inducing mechanism it reminds him of the fact that he has insomnia.  Else why think about oceans in the first place? He is caught in a trap. Any attempt to ameliorate his sleep problem reinforces the notion that he has a sleep problem. It is a vicious cycle and he becomes frustrated Then one evening, in a modest burst of anger he rises, looks at himself in the mirror and says: ”This whole sleeping thing is a real pain. I’m sick of worrying about it. So what if I don’t sleep?” At that point he experiences a wave of comfort, finds himself unexpectedly calm. His insomnia is relegated for the moment to an inconvenience rather than a matter of life and death. The next night he has another self-conversation, then another the next night, and a week later he finds his sleep patterns improving.

A student with Attention Deficit has trouble getting started on a written assignment. His teacher has given directions on how to construct a composition regarding Colonial Times in America. The student heard the directions but “ over-ran” them; jumping ahead with wouldas, couldas, and shouldas, missing central points – being all over the map. While the other students are fluidly engaging in the task he finds himself frozen by “noise.”   The next day he listens to his teacher’s instructions, but this time he talks to himself softly as she presents the lesson. Following her instructions he then re-states the instructions, then prompts himself to begin the task at a specific starting point and guides himself through the entire task. He is successful – all his work completed satisfactorily.
A woman is depressed over her recent divorce. She sits at home, drinking a cup of coffee, pondering, trying to figure out how to make herself more attractive – surely that’s why he left – trying to pinpoint the cause of the break-up. Somehow despite a wide variety of rationales nothing works. She is still at ground zero; confused, saddened, bitter – exactly the way she was yesterday. Then however, she begins to speak overtly to herself, as though in an actual conversation with another person. It has a calming effect. The recent divorcee finds that not only can she ameliorate her sadness but can also move  forward with her life. So it’s on to contemplating new relationship and life goals in the aftermath of a simple intra-personal commentary.

Most people have had experiences similar to those discussed above; if not in the details then in the sense that intra-communication (self talk) has served to alleviate suffering, enhance our focus, fortify our memory, and/or simply get us through the day. Interestingly, aside from Rational Therapy advocates like Ellis (1977) and Maultsby (1990) not much has been written about self-talk as an effective therapeutic or educational tool. While one study addressed the effects of self talk with Attention Deficient and normal students (Winsler, Manfra et al. 2007), the benefits of self talk have not been  explored in any depth.
One reason for this is obvious: talking to one’s self is often associated with mental illness, though the real difference between the psychotic patient and the normal individual might not a penchant for self-talk but a problem with disinhibition and the perception of social context.  (Normal people talk to themselves, but usually pick their spots; perhaps engaging in a solo conversation while driving along the highway but, like the auto itself, stopping at red lights).
Just why self-talk came to became synonymous with mental illness is hard to tell; especially since many theoreticians in the fields of psychology and neuropsychology have discussed the idea that human language might have evolved as an internal-guidance (cognitive) mechanism, rather than a strictly social behavior. For example Pavlov’s idea of language as a second signal system held that a speech-derived neural response fires off in the human brain in response to inputs as a kind of reflexive commentary. His view was that language is more than a means by which to communicate with others, that it is subject to biologically-driven conditioning principles and even plays a role in the onset of psychiatric disorders (1935). More recent research has shown that language can be broadly disseminated in the brain in ways that are nonsocial, indeed even unconscious (Swinney, Zurif et al 1993).
Assuming, as did Luria (1982) and Vygotsky (1989), that language has internal-cognitive foundations, one can speculate as to its potential effect on human emotion and how that might pertain to emotional adaptation. In so doing it would help to describe what actually happens when language is used either as an intervening or post-stimulus commentary mechanism.

It is possible to consider self-talk from various perspectives, particularly as pertains to its psychologically enhancing potentials. One of the most important is the neurological aspect. Language emanates from cortical locations. Even if, as the work of Murdoch and Whelan (2007) indicated, it is not confined to specific areas such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s area, it is still housed in  a part of the brain (the cerebral cortex) that provides associative, cognitive and regulatory functions. The  cortex also provides inhibitory restraints on other, more primal/emotional brain sites, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus (Csu & McCaffrey 2010). That suggests language is useful in controlling emotion as well as forming associations and comprehending social-cognitive themes

In that context the question arises as to why the language of psychotherapy does not lead quickly and irrevocably to positive adjustment by the client. In some instances it does, but by and large change in therapy comes hard and often takes a long time to occur. Why?
To answer that question requires an understanding of information dynamics. In any information exchange there are three main factors involved.  The first is the intended message, ie the initial info-stimulus – whatever that might be. The second is noise, which can consist of intervening inputs,  blunted perception or contradictory signals within the brain that refute the initial message in light of prior percepts and memories. The third component is receipt of the message in its intended form. In a perfect world, there would be a complete correlation between intended messages and receipt of the message. Yet we do not live in a perfect world, and our brains are so large and ultra-associative that noise is often an unavoidable intervening factor.

Noise is a precursor to resistance, which his one reason why human attitudes, emotions and memories are highly resistant to modification. While noise can be manifest in various ways it can always be said to involve some sort of interference pattern. For example, attempts by one person to change another’s strongly held religious belief would not likely succeed.  Indeed it might lead to hostility on the part of the believer because an intervening, internal appraisal framing his belief will have introduced noise that overrode the message to abandon his faith.
The above example is extreme, and not especially profound. As Hovlan (1959) suggested long ago habitually stated and/or practiced attitudes are the most difficult to change. Yet it does illustrate a broader point; specifically that any time one person tries to persuade another there will tend to be a significant noise factor interfering with reception of the intended message.  That means a therapist’s attempt to “persuade a client out of his neurosis” will always tend to be a noisy process. It is one reason why classical psychoanalysis de-emphasizes therapist-to-client interactions; essentially allowing the client to speak without the externally created noise of the therapist’s opinions. It is also why client-centered approaches place such a high premium on congruence in the relationship between counselor and client and why cognitive therapists seek to find dissonance and consonance from within the client’s own internal schemata rather than imposing their own views externally. In other words, most therapies seem to operate on the premise that the client is best served when he can communicate, as much as possible, with himself.

Based on that premise, self-talk would seem to be a quintessential noise reduction device. Since it is the client interacting with himself, congruence would be maximal. Meanwhile, self-criticism, self-bolstering, self-guidance and self-prompting would override the noise component, making prompts more effective, change more possible. Still, while this could be an effective, rapid form of persuasion it could have potential pitfalls.

One could argue (and some have) that self-talk is such a powerful form of persuasion that it is instrumental in the development of psychopathology. (Scott 2008) Therefore, it is not just the act of self-talk but the nature of the self-talk that matters when it comes to emotional adjustment. It might well be true that self-talk has a calming effect whether negative or positive, in that it provides consonance for the psychopath in the aftermath of antisocial behavior and also for the priest whose faith weakens temporarily in a moment of doubt.
Over the long run self-talk can be adaptive or maladaptive. While we can communicate within ourselves and guide our feelings and emotions internally we all live in a world in which we must respond to the acts and feelings of others. Thus, as both ego-therapists and cognitive therapists assert, there should ideally be congruence between our internal language propensities and external, social realities.
That raises the question of whether self talk-coaching might be an effective subcomponent of psychotherapy, wherein therapists espouse and teach this skill to enhance the client’s capacity for adaptive, noise-free self persuasion.
To do so would require getting past the notion of self talk as a quirky behavior. It might be a bridge too far to cross. In our increasingly social environment, where people text and dial one another obsessively, self-talk might be seen as not only weird but Malthusian. Yet in its neurological and psychological foundations, self-talk could be extremely effective in any number of human endeavors. Perhaps human society will eventually veer in the direction of a more contemplative, introversive trend and clinicians and clients will be free to take full advantage of this potent skill.


Csu, C. & McCaffrey, P. (2010) The Corpus Striatum, Rhinencephalon, Connecting Fibers and Diencephalon. CMSD Neuroanatomy of Speech, Swallowing and Language. Neuro Science on the Web series
Ellis, A (1977) Handbook of Rational-Emotive Therapy. New York, Springer
Hovland, C.I. (1959) Reconciling Conflicting Results Derived from Experimental and Survey Studies of Attitude Change. American Psychologist (14) 8-17
Luria, A (1982) Language and Cognition.  New York Wiley & Sons
Maultsby, M (1990) Rational Behavior Therapy, Seaton Foundation
Murdoch, B, Whelan, B.M (2007) Language Disorders Subsequent to Left Cerebellar Lesions: A Case for Bilateral Cerebellar involvement in Language? International Journal of Phoniatrics: Speech Therapy and Communications Pathology Vol. 59 (4)
Pavlov, IP (1935) Lectures on Conditioned Reflexes. In Horsely, E (ed) Conditioned Reflexes and Psychiatry. London. Gantt, Lawrence, Wishart Ltd.
Scott, E (2008) Attitudes, Self Talk and Stress. About. Com Stress Management
Swinney, D. Zurif, E. Prather, P & Love, T (1993) The Neurological Distribution of Processing Operations Underlying Language Comprehension Manuscript, Dept. of Psychology, University of California – San Diego
Vygotsky, (1989) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MIT Press
Winsler, A. Manfra, L & Dial,  RM (2007) Should I let Them Talk: Private Speech and Task Performance among Preschool Children with and without Behavior Problems. Early Childhood Research Quarterly (22) 215-231

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