Seek Creativity? Talk to Yourself!

By Shlomo Maital

  My wife Sharona is a school psychologist, and for many years has spoken to me about the work of a pioneer Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, who studied children and gave the world breakthrough insights. in the 1920s.  One of those insights: “when children learn to talk to others, they also learn how to talk to themselves, first out loud, and then in their heads”. And that “inner speech”, it turns out, is crucial.  

     In the latest Scientific American, psychologist Charles Fernyhough discusses his new book The Voice Within – about our inner speech.

     It is a worn cliché that people who talk to themselves out loud are kind of nutty. But of course, we all talk to ourselves silently, in our heads. I talk to myself for motivation, when I am working out or tackling something rather hard or running up a hill and tiring. Fernyhough notes that inner speech has a role in emotional expression (I sometimes say hard things to those around me, but – only in my head, I have learned not to say them out loud), and at times, I talk to myself to try to understand myself. What do I really think about that?

     Fernyhough notes that inner speech has a role in imagination, in creating alternate realities. I think this is very important.   Part of creativity (creating things that are both novel and useful) is to understand what is truly useful. To do that, you need to have empathy – that is, you need to understand not just how you yourself feel but how others feel.   Inner speech can help. Your inner speech expresses what other people might think and feel about your creative idea. If your inner speech is truly honest, and not just empty self-motivation, it can be helpful in validating your ideas.  

     Let’s say I have an idea for a new-fangled potato peeler, with a squishy handle. I make a prototype. I hold it in my hand. And my inner speech says how another person would feel in holding and using the device.

   I think there is another use for inner speech. Suppose you have to make a tough decision – whether to quit your job and accept a risky position with a startup.   Engage yourself in debate. Take both sides.   Argue with yourself. Verbalize all sides, all aspects. Then, stop. Do something else. Go for a walk or a run.   Your subconscious brain will grab that inner speech, and process it, thoroughly, and send you (very quietly) an answer — so you’d better be listening. When you hear that answer, verbalized, and motivated, you can probably rest assured that this is what you should do.

       So – try doing more inner speech. Talk to yourself. Get better at it. Sometimes, it might help to say the words out loud. Sometimes, you just have to think them.   Putting thoughts into words is an important way creative people have in taking the initial steps to implementing their ideas.