Lost Something? Cognitive Neuroscience Has the Answer

Spoken language holds the key to finding lost keys

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

The next time you lose an item, try this simple trick from Professor Vishton. Beyond its practical use, this trick also reveals how we process verbalized language.

Man looking for his lost keys under sofa
When looking for an object, the use of language by saying the object’s name out loud quickens the brain’s processing of the search for it. Photo By Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

Finding Lost Keys

The connection between language and the brain matters to us even more than we realize. Can’t find your keys? 

As you walk around your house looking for them, say the word “keys” aloud, over and over again. When you look in a cluttered drawer, or at a collection of items on your table, repeating the word “keys” aloud will increase the likelihood that you will find them.

Cognitive psychology professor Kit Cho and his colleagues performed a study of how humans visually search for targets among distractors. The targets were things such as keys, other common objects, and dogs.

In some cases, the participants merely searched for them among a set of distractor objects. The trial would start with a label of the next search target on a computer screen—for example, keys. 

The label would then vanish, and a display consisting of many objects would appear. The task of the participants was to look for the named target. As soon as the target was found, the participant would press a button indicating that they had found it.

For some trials, the target was not present. Once the participant was certain that the target wasn’t there, he or she would press a different computer key. Including these no target trials is important to make sure that the participants weren’t always pressing the key indicating that they had found the target without necessarily doing so.

For some trials, the participant would simply search and find the target as quickly as possible. For the important trials in this study, though, the participant would repeat the target label over and over while searching. 

How Spoken Language Affects the Brain

As soon as the label appeared, the participant would start with the repetitive verbal labeling. This would continue until the target was either found or until the participant was confident that the target was not present.

“Amazingly, just saying the word aloud made the search faster, and it did so without sacrificing accuracy in any way,” Professor Vishton said.

When you speak the word “keys,” your visual system changes the way you process incoming information. It becomes more sensitive to the visual features associated with keys, and you become faster at finding them. 

Thus, whenever you are looking for something, don’t keep it to yourself. Name the thing that you are looking for out loud, and you will be faster and more likely to find it.

In addition to helping you find your keys, glasses, and phone, Professor Vishton’s tip highlights a major aspect of how language processing works in your brain. The mere fact of talking, as well as how we talk, and what we say, can have a strong influence on how and even what we think. 

Words Matter

The way you describe something can change how you evaluate that thing. By choosing your words carefully—and in some cases, by expressing them aloud—you can enhance your thinking about all sorts of things.

This concept illuminates a theory that has waxed and waned in popularity among cognitive neuroscientists over the years referred to as the Whorfian hypothesis. Sometimes it is also referred to as the linguistic relativity hypothesis. It is named for Benjamin Whorf, who suggested that language may determine our thoughts.

The strongest form of this hypothesis is that you can’t think anything that you can’t put into words. It suggests that the language or languages we know are the system that our brain uses whenever it processes information. According to the strong version of this theory, language and thought are, in many respects, the same thing.

The strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis has largely vanished from serious consideration. However, a weaker version of the Whorfian hypothesis has gone through a bit of a revival. 

Language doesn’t seem to determine or preclude what our brains can think. However, language very much seems to influence our brain’s performance—in important, measurable ways.

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.