People Who Talk To Themselves Aren't Crazy, They're Actually Geniuses According To Science


I have a confession to make...

I talk to myself when I'm by myself.

Whenever I drive somewhere, I pull out my phone, turn on the voice recorder, and start talking.

Sometimes when I visit New York City, and I have a long walk, I pretend I'm on a phone call. I put the phone against my ear. I act animated and all—like someone on a phone would talk. In reality, I'm just talking to myself.

Heck. I'm talking to myself this very moment as I edit these words.

Am I crazy?

Maybe I am. But it's not because I talk to myself.

Am I being smart?

Yes. I think so. Here's why...

There is mounting research that one of the best ways to learn any complex topic is to explain it to yourself or to someone else by writing it out, talking it out, or drawing it out. This phenomenon is known as the Explanation Effect.

You’ve experienced the power of the Explanation Effect if you have ever:

  • Had a new insight when you journaled.
  • Learned something new about what you were teaching as you were preparing for or actually teaching it.
  • Started explaining an idea to someone else only to realize that you didn’t actually understand the idea as well as you thought you did.
  • Gotten new ideas from a student, reader, or conversation partner that helped take the idea to the next level.

Here are just three examples of recent studies attesting to the power of the Explanation Effect:

  • In a Harvard study, “employees who spent the last 15 minutes of each day of their training period writing and reflecting on what they had learned did 23% better in the final training test than other employees.” Imagine spending 8 hours in a training, then spending 15 minutes reflecting on what you learned. Amazingly, those 15 minutes are only 1/33 of the total time but drive 20% of the learning gain.
  • Another study found that participants who talked out loud to themselves while solving abstract logic puzzles performed three times better than those who worked in silence. These puzzles had two components that increased in difficulty; it was on the second, more difficult component that the self-talkers surpassed the silent group. The researcher concluded that talking to themselves “lead to increased awareness of past behavior, particularly of those aspects necessary for a successful solution.” In other words, the self-talkers basically taught themselves how to solve the puzzles.
  • A pair of studies published in Science and Intelligence fascinatingly concluded that older siblings are generally more intelligent because they find themselves in a teacher and mentor role more often.

And, I'm not alone...

Many Of The Greats Take Advantage Of The Explanation Effect

Many of the world’s top entrepreneurs, creatives, scientists, and leaders have used the Explanation Effect as a central approach to their work. These include Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Ray Dalio, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Charlie Munger, Oprah Winfrey, and many more. They’ve done this through various methods:

  • Creating Content (book, annual report, blog). In a CNBC interview, Warren Buffett goes so far as to say that he would rather be remembered as a teacher than an investor. And, when you think about it, that is how he probably will be remembered. When you watch his company’s annual shareholder meeting (which sells out to tens of thousands of attendees) and listen to the questions, it’s clear that many, if not most of the attendees, are there for life and business wisdom. Buffett regularly has made time to speak to students throughout his career and millions read his annual shareholder letter despite not owning Berkshire Hathaway stock. Buffett has said, “I regard the annual report and the annual meeting as a teaching venue.” In 2016, Buffett took things a step further and wrote a 50-year retrospective. Writing about the report, he says, “As you might guess, I ended up being the prime beneficiary of this effort. There’s nothing like actually writing something out to clarify thinking.”
  • Or consider that Bill Gatesone of the richest people in the world, is co-chairman of the world’s largest foundation and founder of the world’s second-largest company. Yet, over the last few years, he has spent untold hours writing hundreds of blog posts that focus on sharing what he’s learning in the books he’s reading and from the innovative people he meets around the world. Basically, in his blog, Gates is teaching.
  • Journaling. Journaling is a form of teaching yourself. Leonardo da Vinci filled tens of thousands of pages with sketches and musings on his art, inventions, observations, and ideas. Albert Einstein amassed more than 80,000 pages of notes in his lifetime. Former President John Adams kept over 51 journals throughout his life. Thomas Edison wrote more than five million pages of notes. Read more about famous journalers in Why Successful People Spend 10 Hours A Week On Compound Time.
  • Masterminding. In masterminds, a group of individuals come together with the goal of mutual improvement. Many of the most famous entrepreneurs, creatives, and leaders throughout history employed masterminds. For example, Theodore Roosevelt’s Tennis Cabinet included friends and diplomats who exercised together daily and debated the issues facing the country. Benjamin Franklin created a “mutual improvement society” called the Junto that gathered each Friday evening to learn from each other. The Vagabonds were a group of four famous friends — Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, and John Burroughs — who took road trips each summer: camping, climbing, and sitting around the campfire discussing their various scientific and business ventures and debating the pressing issues of the day. I personally lead or participate in several in-person mastermind events per year. In addition, I participate in a weekly virtual mastermind.
  • Turning Your Job Into A Platform To Learn And Teach. When Oprah Winfrey first launched her talk show, it became an overnight success based on sensational stories. As her career progressed though, she turned the show into a teaching platform. First, the shows morphed into topics that she was learning about and applying to her own life. Then, she started a book club. Later a magazine. I started the Mental Model Club, in part, because I wanted to force myself to more deliberately learn mental models.
  • Learning Conversations. Many of the most remarkable insights in history came from pairs of friends who spent years dialoguing, conversing, and debating with each other. Nobel laureates Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky spent years walking for hours a day, sharing and laughing about cognitive biases they noticed. Their collaboration is brilliantly detailed in Michael Lewis’ book The Undoing Project (recommended reading).Famous novelists J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis shared their work with each other and set aside Mondays to meet at a pub to converse. Francis Crick and James Watson, the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA, batted ideas back and forth relentlessly, both in their shared office and during daily lunches in Cambridge. Crick recalled that if he presented a flawed idea, “Watson would tell me in no uncertain terms this was nonsense, and vice-versa.” Legendary entrepreneurs and long-time friends Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel have had hundreds of informal conversations over the years designed to sharpen each other’s intellectual positions. Of the format, Hoffman says, “It was … more or less taking any sophisticated intellectual position that one of us had and taking the negation of it.”

Interested In Diving Deeper Into The Explanation Effect?

This year, I spent over 50 hours diving deep into the research on the Explanation Effect and crafting strategies for getting the most from it. If you're interested in using the Explanation Effect to learn faster than you'll love this monster 4,000-word article I created. To my knowledge, it's the most condensed and comprehensive overview of the Explanation Effect that exists.

Finally, do you talk to yourself?

In the comments, let me know how and where you talk to yourself so you can understand your thoughts more deeply?