Thinking Out Loud

December 27, 2021

When I’m thinking about some difficult problem, I’ll sometimes speak out loud to myself. I describe the problem. I enumerate possible hypotheses or the steps of my plan. I talk through ideas, like I might if I were describing them to a colleague.

I notice a few things happen when I do this:

  • I’m forced to be specific about what I think, or at least confront the fact that I’m not. There’s a particular way it feels to I realize I don’t really know how to speak what I’ve been thinking. That’s a sign that I’m confused.
  • I automatically fit my thoughts into a rhetorical structure. What I hear when I think out loud is not the same thing I think in my head. It’s structured in sentences and nested bullet points. When I go off on a tangent, I more strongly feel the tension of the incomplete point and come back.
  • I feel a kind of extra confidence in my thoughts. When I’ve thought out loud about something this way and come to a conclusion, I feel good about that in a way that I don’t experience when I think without speaking.

I don’t do this all the time, but when I do, I’m always glad I did. It’s uncomfortable. Finding that you are confused about something you thought you understood is uncomfortable. The process of working through your thoughts to the point that you can speak them clearly takes a lot of concentration.

It’s a much more effortful way to think than the internal stream of consciousness. I find that when I think only in my head, I’m much more likely to get distracted and avoid confronting the problem at all. I’m more likely to let myself get away with glossing over the details that make the problem hard. Speaking brings a kind of discipline to thought. It feels weird not to finish your sentences. It feels weird not to acknowledge the obvious hole in the argument that now hangs in the air.

I think the reason thinking out loud is so useful is that it recruits the cognitive machinery of speech. Speaking is serious business for us humans. Our interlocuters don’t like it when we’re incoherent or get distracted or gloss over important issues. When we can’t persuade, inform, or impress our fellow humans, we have a much harder time in life. Fortunately, we have dedicated neural hardware to facilitate effective speech. We practice it almost every day, often in very challenging, high stakes environments. When we think out loud, all of these skills and facilities are activated in service of effective thought.

It really does feel like the thoughts hang in the air. It’s like it expands my working memory or improves its integrity. It makes it easier to return to a prior thought after a tangent. Some models of memory propose that we have a phonological loop, which lets us store short snippets of speech we recently heard. This is the system hypothesized to be at work when you encounter something you want to remember, like a phone number, and then repeat it to yourself over and over until you can write it down. Recruiting the phonological loop by converting your thoughts into phonology perhaps helps make working memory more effective.

In general, having more parts of your body and mind engaged in any given task seems like it should boost your focus on the task. If we assume a model of the mind where various modules communicate with each other, then having more modules communicating about the same thing, and thus providing task-relevant input to all the other modules should be a kind of positive feedback loop that keeps you engaged with the task.

Speech is usually a social activity. I think this might explain why I feel a special kind of confidence in my thought process and conclusions when I arrive at them by thinking out loud. When you’re trying to convince other people of something, it’s useful to seem confident in what you’re saying. I feel a bit triumphant when I get to the end of a line of thought, perhaps to invite my audience to feel a little triumphant with me. If this is the right explanation, it means I should be a bit skeptical of the conclusions I come to when thinking out loud, but on balance this feeling of confidence is beneficial. It makes me more likely to act on my thoughts, and if I’m also right that thinking out loud leads to higher quality, better structured thoughts, I should act on them.

If you haven’t tried it, I highly recommend it. Take some problem on your plate and talk through it. It doesn’t have to be a technical problem. It can be anything that feels unresolved and hazy. Many people use writing in a similar way. Thinking by writing definitely has a lot of similar properties, but speaking feels different. It flows better. It’s more physical.

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Written by Grady Simon, software engineer and researcher building new media for human-data interaction with machine learning. You can also follow him on Twitter