Humans rely on language to a remarkable degree. Even non-verbal activities can be enhanced or impaired by allowing or restricting speech or hearing. Does naming an object out loud affect how easily you can find that object? Yes and no, as Gary Lupyan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Daniel Swingley of the University of Pennsylvania found out.
Volunteers were set the task of finding one specific picture out of a grid of images. Before each trial, the subjects were shown a written label specifying what he or she was to look for (a fork, violin, lemon, etc) and either instructed to read the word aloud or to keep silent. That word was then replaced with the image grid and participants were timed to see how long it took them to click on the correct picture. Although everyone found the target pictures, speaking out loud led to slightly quicker times and fewer errors.
Figure 1 A sample search trial from Experiments 1 and 2.
In a second experiment, subjects were asked to repeat the name of the object as they were searching. Again, there was a slight improvement in time and accuracy with talking aloud.
Finally, participants were asked to find three examples of photographs of products one would find at the supermarket (for example, ‘Poland Spring water’ could be represented by a photo of gallon bottles, a photo of liter bottles and one of half liter bottles). This means that the participant would not know exactly what to expect from the written description. Unlike with the other trials, speaking aloud not only did not improve search times, but made subjects more likely to miss one of the pictures.So, should you talk to yourself when you’re trying to find something? There is a slight benefit to the practice if you’re looking for a single easily identifiable object. On the other hand, if you’re not exactly sure what the object looks like, speaking aloud may be more of a hindrance, possibly because it artificially narrows your search parameters.