Health and Wellness

The memory care trick you've already been practicing

A cognitive aging and dementia specialist shares tips for seniors on how to help support your brain and memory by talking to yourself

How often do you find yourself going into a room to get something and then forgetting what you went in for? External self-talk, when used properly, can significantly reduce the number of times that happens. Declaring your intention in an audible way can make a world of difference. While you may still have that momentary lapse when you get to the top of the stairs or into the kitchen and think, “What did I come here for?” you are much more likely to have your reason pop into mind if you say it out loud to begin with. As a result, rarely do you need to return to the point of origin to figure out what you were planning to do.

Image for Conversations Article External Self Talk 

Talking out loud to yourself is one of the easiest and most effective cognitive tools available. Pioneered by Psychologist Donald Meichenbaum in the 1970’s, self-talk was initially designed as an approach to cognitive-behavioral therapy to help individuals talk through a situation as it occurs. Now it is widely used by anyone who wants a little help with their memory.

How does it work?

To be successful, external self-talk must be clear and audible. In other words, you cannot just mumble under your breath. You must be able to clearly hear yourself say, “I am going upstairs to get my glasses.” Conceptually, it makes sense as to why it is so effective.

First, it is not possible to speak as fast as one can think. Therefore, when talking out loud you are forced to go at a processing speed your brain can handle. Simply put, talking out loud forces you to slow down.

Secondly, our brain can jump around from thought to thought at a fairly rapid speed. In fact, it often feels as though we are thinking about many items at once. However, when you speak out loud, that is not possible. Speaking out loud forces you to say one thought at a time, allowing you to organize your thoughts.

Finally, speaking out loud provides an opportunity for your brain to use dual encoding, whereby you process the information twice: you hear it and think it. In fact, in very short distances you may even have the sensation of hearing your own voice as it lingers.

To summarize, the simple act of clear, audible, external verbalizations helps you to slow down, organize your thoughts and process the information twice. The positive outcome of this is a much greater likelihood of remembering.

External Self-Talk in action

You may already be using external self-talk. It is common to use external self-talk when working through a difficult activity. For example, it is inevitable that at some point along the way, when putting together a piece of IKEA furniture, many will try to organize their thoughts and manage their frustration by saying out loud “Ok, I have four Flaksa and three Javnakers, now what?” By asking aloud, the individual is managing to slow their brain down, think in a more organized fashion and more than likely proceed in a successful and calm manner.

So please, don’t be shy and give it a shot. For a one-week period, make a concerted effort to talk out loud a little more. You will no doubt see the benefits of this simple technique.

Dr. Heather Palmer is a cognitive aging and dementia specialist with more than 30 years of clinical and scientific experience. She focuses on helping individuals improve the way they think, feel and function. Heather is the National Director of Cognitive Well-Being for Amica Mature Lifestyles. She is developing cognitive well-being programs for Amica with a heightened focus on Memory Care and Assisted Living.

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