The Nuance

The ‘Mantra Effect’: How Talking to Yourself Can Change Your Mind

The human voice is a persuasive communication tool — even when you’re talking to yourself

Illustration: Kieran Blakey

Spoken mantras are a feature of many Eastern religious traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Mantras can take the form of words or phrases, but they’re often simple sounds or syllables that are thought to improve concentration and support meditative practices.

The Om chant is one of the best-known mantras in the West. While for some the word has great spiritual significance, it may also have the power to instill calm in those who attach no religious meaning to its utterance.

Research from India has found that saying Om dampens patterns of brain activity in ways that mimic stimulation of the vagus nerve, which governs the body’s rest-and-relax states and counteracts stress. While that Indian study was small, other research efforts have likewise linked Om to mood and relaxation benefits.

The calming power of mantras may extend beyond Om. A 2015 study in the journal Brain and Behavior found that repetitive speech — speaking the same word or related words over and over again — quieted aspects of brain activity that involved the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is associated with self-directed thinking and planning, which is helpful in moderation. But hyperactive patterns of DMN activity seem to play a role in anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.

In the study, some people repeated the word “one” over and over again. The reductions in their DMN activity were similar to those associated with mindfulness and meditation practices, and among the study participants this drop in DMN activity produced feelings of calmness and tranquility. The study’s authors called this “the mantra effect.”

Speaking these words seems to push a person’s emotions in predictable directions, such as toward relaxation or happiness, that research found.

The idea that people can talk themselves into a calmer, more confident, or otherwise improved mental state has long been the butt of jokes. (The old Stuart Smalley skits on Saturday Night Live come to mind.) But research in the fields of emotion regulation, sports performance, and cognitive psychology have found that talking to oneself may have real and underappreciated value.

How talking to yourself may change your brain

A neuroscience concept known as the gate control theory could help explain how the mantra effect works.

“Gating” refers to processes in the brain that — like a closed gate — seem to block the action of other processes. For example, massaging or lightly touching a person’s skin has been shown to reduce the sensation of pain by gating off pain-associated brain activity. The authors of the “mantra effect” study speculate that, through a similar process, simple verbal utterances may block anxious, disquieting, or distracting thoughts.

More mantra research from India has also found that specific words or phrases may have different “psychoacoustic” properties. Speaking these words, which include Om and other spiritual mantras, seems to push a person’s emotions in predictable directions, such as toward relaxation or happiness, that research found.

In line with this finding, there’s evidence that the brain listens and responds to the emotional quality of one’s own voice.

For a 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people read a short story out loud while wearing noise-cancelling headphones. As they read, they could hear in the headphones real-time playback of their own voices. Unbeknownst to the readers, the emotional valence of their voices was gradually adjusted using audio software. By the end of the reading, some of their voices had been manipulated to sound happy, sad, or fearful.

After the reading, the study team questioned the people in the study and assessed their emotional states. Most of them (about 85%) did not notice that their voices had been manipulated. And, remarkably, their emotional state had shifted in parallel with the manipulation; people whose voices were made to sound happy felt happier, and those whose voices sounded sad felt sadder.

There’s also evidence that talking to oneself may strengthen concentration and performance.

For a 2011 study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, people looked for objects in a Where’s-Waldo-style visual challenge. When they said the name of an object out loud, they found it much faster than if they said the object’s name in their head, the study found. And a robust body of work has found that when athletes talk to themselves in encouraging ways — whether out loud or covertly — they often perform better.

“We all know it’s a lot easier to advise someone else on their problems than it is to advise ourselves. There are tools we can activate to take advantage of the benefits we get when helping other people.”

How to talk to yourself

Despite the evidence that talking to yourself can be helpful, most of the scholarly work on self-talk has examined the kind that goes on in your head — rather than the type spoken out loud.

Part of this has to do with the stigma surrounding talking to oneself. “There are social implications associated with too much out-loud self-talk,” says Ethan Kross, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “You wouldn’t want to encourage people to talk out loud to themselves all the time.”

Much of Kross’s work has examined silent self-talk. He and his colleagues have found that when people talk to themselves as though they’re advising a friend or another person, this method of “stepping outside” of themselves can help them to regulate their emotions and improve their thinking under stress. “We all know it’s a lot easier to advise someone else on their problems than it is to advise ourselves,” he says. “There are tools we can activate to take advantage of the benefits we get when helping other people.”

He recommends talking to yourself using “you” or your own name, just as you would speak to a friend who needed your guidance. For example, you might say to yourself, “You’re super prepared for this,” or, “John, you’ve got this.” You’ll want to maintain this as you talk yourself through a problem or situation. “This reroutes your internal dialogue in ways that help you avoid getting hung up in the emotional details of an experience,” Kross says.

Doing this in your head helps. But doing it out loud may also be beneficial — and maybe for slightly different reasons. “This is not based on data. This is just my intuition,” he says. “But when we talk out loud, we have to organize our thoughts into a coherent narrative.” On the other hand, he says that internal self-talk — especially anxious, ruminative thoughts — tend to be neither organized nor coherent. “It’s more emotional and repetitive, like a pinballing of negativity,” he says. “I could see how the act of articulating our thoughts out loud could provide clarity and structure.”

Taken together, all of this research suggests that using your voice — whether you’re murmuring a calming mantra or talking yourself through a problem — can silence unhelpful internal dialogues and also influence how you feel and perform.

“Language can shape how we think in powerful ways,” Kross says. Using the primary language tool you have — your own voice — may help you harness that power.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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