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Strange but true: Talking to yourself is normal

‘Private speech’ is a stand-in for parental wisdom

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Question: Lots of people go around talking to themselves. Who are these people? Are they dangerous?

Answer: They're children and possibly many adults, maybe even YOU. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested that this "private speech" is a stand-in for the helpful guiding speech that children often receive from parents and caregivers, says Washington State University psychologist Andrew Lotto. This self-directed speech is a way to guide activities and structure thought. Researchers have demonstrated that self-talk in children increases when task difficulty increases, and children who use private speech in tasks often show the greatest increase in performance.

Naturally as one grows older there are social constraints on talking out loud to yourself, and as children age they start to whisper or just mouth their self-guiding thoughts. "Perhaps as adults, when no one is around, we use this same process. Since the speech is usually private, it may be up to the individual to decide if this prediction is generally true."

Question: From a Monterey, Calif., reader: "Beethoven was totally deaf when he wrote his Ninth Symphony. Was that a truly astounding achievement, or merely very difficult? As a gifted creative musician, he 'heard' it in his mind and wrote the notes down. Not quite as amazing as a blind person painting a masterpiece, because wouldn't a visual artist need to see more than a composer needs to hear?"

Answer: Anyone with musical training can look at the score for a piece of music and "hear" it, says University of Georgia musical composition and theory professor Adrian P. Childs.

Deafness does not impair musical creativity or the act of crafting the notated score. "Nor is the painter's artistic vision impaired by blindness, but lack of sight certainly inhibits the physical creation of the final product."

A better comparison might be a sculptor who has lost his sight but still has memory of what he has seen and felt, says University of Toronto musicologist Gregory Johnston.

He wouldn't know the color or whether there are blemishes in the marble, but he wouldn't be completely divorced from his work as would a painter. Another would be a blind choreographer who can envision the stage and dancers, and then communicates that to a director to realize the vision.

In any artistic medium, first comes the dream or conception, then — only if it can be executed — the creation.

Question: All sorts of sounds go into your ears. Do any sounds come back out?

Answer: Healthy ears send out usually very soft sounds — called otoacoustic emissions — that can be detected if amplified with a small microphone placed in the outer canal, says City University of New York hearing scientist Glenis Long. In some cases, no amplification is necessary for the sounds to be overheard by others in the room.

Actually, these sounds result from processes in the inner ear that self-amplify very soft sounds in the environment, rendering them audible to the individual. So a lack of outbound ear sounds can reveal a hearing problem (a passive way to test infants' hearing), but so too can those occasional ear "broadcasts" that are too loud.

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com