The Voice of Reason – Part 2
Everyone engages in self-talk. But much depends on the way we do it. Scientists now find that the right words can free us from our fears and make us as wise about ourselves as we often are about others.
The Voice of Reason – by Pamela Weintraub.
When We Were Young
Self-talk starts audibly during the toddler years. The incessant self-talk of toddlers is conducted out loud as a kind of instruction manual, a self-generated road map to mastery; your voice directs you to build Lego houses, sound out words and sentences in big-letter books.
Here’s what it sounds like, as captured in the riff of a little boy guiding himself through the construction of a Tinkertoy truck: “The wheels go here, the wheels go here. Oh, we need to start it all over again. We need to close it up. See, it closes up. We’re starting it all over again.”
Dubbed private talk by the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, that early out-loud self-talk “transforms the task in question, just as the use of a screwdriver transforms the task of assembling a shed,” Fernyhough says. “Putting our thoughts into words gives them a more tangible form, which makes them easier to use.”
Inner talk isn’t just mechanical, Vygotsky contended—it is the ultimate social act, an embrace and reinterpretation of teachings picked up from knowledgeable elders, pushed back out in the child’s own words. The more challenging the task, the more elaborate and vociferous the talk, all the better to help children take control of their actions and behavior.
Self-talk is the means by which the child navigates what Vygotsky famously called “the zone of proximal development,” the realm of challenges just beyond reach, too complex for a child to master alone. Children build learning partnerships with adults to gain a skill and then go off on their own, talking themselves through the task aloud. As mastery is gained, self-talk is internalized until it is mostly silent—still part of the ongoing dialogue with oneself, but more intimate, no longer broadcast.
A generation of child psychologists, led by Laura Berk at the University of Southern Illinois, has spent decades documenting the nuances: In the best circumstances, the patient teacher or caregiver teaches children the unemotional, useful, step-by-step language for mastering any task; the children, in turn, use such language in their private speech to teach themselves other things. “You can do it—try again,” the well-taught child might say to herself when she runs into trouble, guiding herself through the most challenging problems, one logical phrase at a time.
By contrast, an abrupt, angry teacher, prone to outbursts or impatience, can set children up for an enduring pattern of self-defeating self-talk. Children exposed to such teachers learn the language of frustration, becoming inefficient self-guiders, getting mad at themselves the minute they feel confused. “Idiot, you can’t do anything,” a child might say to himself, tossing his book across the room. To add injury to insult, the child also fails to master the task.
Private talk in childhood is also fuel for the imagination, Berk has found. Pretending to be James Bond requires complexities of coordination—arranging your “spy equipment,” finding a hideout in Barcelona (under the staircase), foiling your enemy on her boat (the bathtub), and getting your fake identity documents ready for the plane (your bed). All hinge on, and in turn nurture, executive functions of the brain: controlling attention, suppressing impulses in favor of situation-appropriate responses, and combining various types of information in long-term memory, as well as planning, organizing, and thinking flexibly—the very skills that underlie later academic success.
Through self-talk, children plan out and activate their make-believe characters. The more that children self-talk during make-believe play, Berk discovered, the more likely they are to carry such a strategy into adulthood, setting the stage for a lifetime of focused attention, organization, and self-regulation. “It’s a myth that children with imaginary friends are somehow disturbed,” Berk notes. “Children who talk to imaginary friends engage in more self-talk as adults, and that makes them more self-controlled.”
Make-believe play, intrinsically tied to self-talk, gives children psychological distance from their everyday lives, Berk says. And that distance provides the psychic space they need to gain control over their own impulses. If self-talk is one of the great achievements of humanness, a gift from our evolutionary forebears and caretakers, who soothed and stoked us with words, it is, in turn, one of the deep-seated drivers of human evolution.