Ever since I retired, I have found an increased need to exercise -not so much the muscles in my legs or anything, but mainly my voice. It seems to have weakened in the interregnum between needing to talk to people and now -when there are no people around- to listen. I suppose I should have seen it coming and prophylactically enrolled in some sort of remedial classes at the Community Center. But I didn’t. I mean, who would have prophesied hoarseness, or rasp as an inevitable consequence of use-it-or-lose-it?
Of course, I now practice talking to everything, and I think this may be helping. It all started with a realization that I still needed a voice to answer the phone. People began to apologize for waking me up, or inquire about the state of my health -or worse, wondering whether it might be better for them to phone me back when I was in a better mood. Any answer I gave to their concerns was compounded by their seemingly newfound need to clear their own throats as helpful hints.
About the only thing that did, was alert me to the need to practice saying hello during the five rings I allowed before actually answering the call. Five is up from the two with which I started, but it only shook, not stirred the phlegm into a separate compartment.
From there, things stagnated, although I did happen upon an article that alerted me to the value of reading aloud -apparently, it was supposed to foster understanding and retention of the written content. That helped a bit, I think -at least it formed the germ of an idea for an as yet unpublished essay but there it lay, fallow to most of the world, the genesis of a mere ritual, productive of a single composition. There must, I thought, be more to it than the single uncovering of a Matryoshka doll’s many layers.
It was with this in mind -plus the pandemic’s social exclusion cloak- that I gradually expanded my repertoire. Why confine the verbal gymnastics to reading exercises? Life -even post-plague life- should encompass more than reading aloud; it should blossom into new, overlapping Magisteria. As long as I was walking alone and didn’t risk imprisonment in an institution for dementing seniors, I could talk to myself, quote from vaguely-remembered poems from even less well-remembered books, or work on famous soliloquies, perhaps. And it grew from there; at last, I had a dirty little secret. I fancied myself a pioneer -years ahead of my still dithering friends who kept their thoughts tightly handcuffed within, or at best, confined them to quiet whispers if they were uncertain they were alone.
I, too, started off in that cloistered way, and then developed a method of disguising my sui generis public speaking by doing it without moving my lips. If anyone stared, I would merely roll my eyes and nod at someone nearby as if I thought they’d been the one who’d been talking to their sleeves.
I think I have been vindicated at last, however. I happened upon an essay by Nana Ariel, a lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University and guest lecturer at Harvard: https://psyche.co/ideas/talking-out-loud-to-yourself-is-a-technology-for-thinking
As she writes (and maybe says out loud to herself) ‘Speaking out loud is not only a medium of communication, but a technology of thinking: it encourages the formation and processing of thoughts.’ I would have been suspicious of the solitary talker only a few years ago, but events have overtaken my objections now. Ariel quotes a thought from an essay ‘On the Gradual Formation of Thoughts During Speech’ (1805) by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist… ‘we usually hold an abstract beginning of a thought, but active speech helps to turn the obscure thought into a whole idea. It’s not thought that produces speech but, rather, speech is a creative process that in turn generates thought.’ I’ve found that happens to me as well after about 20 minutes of singing in the shower.
But audible self-talk is not without it’s critics who argue that ‘The tendency to express our inner thoughts in actual self-talk, typical of children, is internalised, and transforms to voiceless inner speech in adulthood.’ In other words, it’s rather… primitive. Childish.
I rather enjoy the rebuttal, though, that ‘silent inner speech often appears in a ‘condensed’ and partial, form… Speaking out loud, by contrast, allows the retrieval of our thoughts in full, using rhythm and intonation that emphasise their pragmatic and argumentative meaning, and encourages the creation of developed, complex ideas.’
And, ‘Not only does speech retrieve pre-existing ideas, it also creates new information in the retrieval process, just as in the process of writing. Speaking out loud is inventive and creative – each uttered word and sentence doesn’t just bring forth an existing thought, but also triggers new mental and linguistic connections… This transformation isn’t just about the translation of thoughts into another set of signs – rather, it adds new information to the mental process, and generates new mental cascades.’
I am also heartened -and reassured- that my habit of talking while I’m walking is far from aberrant: ‘evidence shows that movement enhances thinking and learning, and both are activated in the same centre of motor control in the brain.’ In fact, the field of cognitive science concerned with ‘embodied’ cognition suggests that ‘actions themselves are constitutive of cognitive processes.’ That’s why ‘activities such as playing a musical instrument, writing, speaking or dancing don’t start in the brain and then emanate out to the body as actions; rather, they entail the mind and body working in concert as a creative, integrated whole, unfolding and influencing each other in turn.’
I think I’m really on to something here -I’m activating my intuitive cognitive muscles. I’m getting myself in shape. It’s no wonder that I’m exhausted after a long walk in the woods, nowadays; it’s no wonder that when I get home, I have an overwhelming urge to listen to someone else talking on the TV; it’s no wonder, though, that I am also at peace with consolidating all I’ve learned on the hike by talking to an attentive glass of otherwise silent wine.