Have you ever said something out loud, and as soon as the last syllable left your lips, desperately began backtracking?
“No..what I meant was. Ok. Listen. What I meant to say was…”
It really sucks. Especially when it means sleeping on the couch for the next 3 nights.
Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything.
“You shut your mouth when you’re talking to me!”
But this does raise an interesting question: Do we really know what’s about to come out of our mouth before we say it?
The traditional model of speech is thought to be pretty straightforward:
- The brain comes up with an idea and arranges it into a logical structure
- A “filter” checks the proposed idea to make sure it’s appropriate to communicate
- The brain passes it to your mouth
- You blurt it out
But, if you’ve ever said something, then immediately wanted to take it back, you know that it isn’t always that simple.
In fact, some researchers are beginning to believe that only part of our speech is actually planned, and that much of the meaning behind our speech only becomes clear to us once we say it out loud.
In other words, even WE can be surprised by the things that we end up saying. And in some cases, we are only able to decode our thoughts after saying them out loud first.
A May 2014 study for Nature detailed how one scientist used a Stroop test to determine whether people are actually aware of what they were saying while they are saying it:
…cognitive scientist Andreas Lind and his colleagues at Lund University in Sweden wanted to see what would happen if someone said one word, but heard themselves saying another. “If we use auditory feedback to compare what we say with a well-specified intention, then any mismatch should be quickly detected,” he says. “But if the feedback is instead a powerful factor in a dynamic, interpretative process, then the manipulation could go undetected.
In Lind’s experiment, participants took a Stroop test — in which a person is shown, for example, the word ‘red’ printed in blue and is asked to name the colour of the type (in this case, blue). During the test, participants heard their responses through headphones. The responses were recorded so that Lind could occasionally play back the wrong word, giving participants auditory feedback of their own voice saying something different from what they had just said. Lind chose the words ‘grey’ and ‘green’ (grå and grön in Swedish) to switch, as they sound similar but have different meanings.
After participants heard a manipulated word, a question popped up on the screen asking what they had just said, and they were also quizzed after the test to see whether they had detected the switch. When the voice-activated software got the timing just right — so that the wrong word began within 5–20 milliseconds of the participant starting to speak — the change went undetected more than two-thirds of the time.
Essentially, the study found that when quizzed on their performance, subjects weren’t even aware of their actual responses to questions — and could be easily tricked into believing that they’d said something entirely different.
Only when they reviewed the tapes again were they able to correctly recall and assess their answers.
I find this fascinating — not because of the implications it has for trickery in a laboratory — but because of what it could mean for learning and idea formulation.
Maybe we need to hear ourselves speak out loud before we can generate our best ideas.
I know that for myself and many other ENTPs, our best ideas are created out loud, in real time, often pacing around a room (more on Myers Briggs personality types here).
Even better — having to explain our idea to someone else out loud is probably the fastest way to find errors in our own logic. That’s why many developers use the “rubber duckie test” in order to debug their code by forcing themselves, line-by-line, to explain the code to…you guessed it…a rubber duckie.
In college, I did the same thing, but with a teddy bear
The “rubber duckie test” sounds a little cheesy — but it really works. And after reading research that finds a connection between speaking out loud and increased understanding, it makes sense.
How do you generate ideas?
Do you like to speak out loud in order to refine your idea?
Do you prefer writing it down instead?
Maybe you just like “mulling it over” in your head?
Leave a comment below telling me how you generate your best ideas.