There's nothing wrong with the voice that speaks inside our head. It's a vital part of being human.
But as Ethan Gross describes in his captivating book, Chatter, the conversations we have with ourselves can become as annoying as being trapped on a long plane flight with a person sitting next to us who talks about stupid stuff and just won't shut up.
Chatter consists of the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing. It puts our performance, decision making, relationships, happiness, and health in jeopardy.
We think about that screwup at work or misunderstanding with a loved one and end up flooded with how bad we feel. Then we think about it again. And again. We introspect hoping to tap into our inner coach but find our inner critic instead.
The question, of course, is why. Why do people's attempts to "go inside" and think when they experience distress at times succeed and at other times fail? And just as important, once we find our introspective abilities running off course, what can we do to steer them back on track?
I've spent my career examining those questions. I've learned that the answers hinge on changing the nature of one of the most important conversations of conscious life: the ones we have with ourselves.
I've only read the book's introduction and first two (of seven) chapters. But I'm already liking it a lot. Well written. Entertaining. Informative. Inspiring. Here's some additional passages from the part I've read so far that will give you a feel for some of the themes Gross talks about.
He makes the rather obvious point that always living in the now isn't possible nor desirable.
A widespread cultural mantra of the twenty-first century is the exhortation to live in the present. I appreciate the wisdom of this maxim. Instead of succumbing to the pain of the past or anxiety about the future, it advises, we should concentrate on connecting with others and oneself right now.
And yet, as a scientist who studies the human mind, I can't help but note how this well-intentioned message runs counter to our biology. Humans weren't made to hold fast to the present all the time. That's just not what our brains evolved to do.
We have a marvelous ability to engage in mental time travel. This is a feature, not a bug, of the human mind.
This pattern of hopscotching through time and space in their inner conversations highlights something we have all noticed about our own mind: It is an avid time traveler.
While memory lane can lead us down chatter lane, there's nothing inherently harmful about returning to the past or imagining the future. The ability to engage in mental time travel is an exceedingly valuable feature of the human mind.
It allow us to make sense of our experiences in ways that other animals can't, not to mention make plans and prepare for contingencies in the future. Just as we talk with friends about things we have done and things we will do or would like to do, we talk to ourselves about those same things.
Many forms of self-talk are just fine. But when our inner voice goes rogue, chattering away in an unproductive fashion, that isn't fine. Our attention gets focused in the wrong direction.
Your labor-intense executive functions need every neuron they can get, but a negative inner voice hogs our neural capacity. Verbal rumination concentrates our attention narrowly on the source of our emotional distress, thus stealing neurons that could better serve us.
In effect, we jam our executive functions up by attending to a "dual task" -- the task of doing whatever it is we want to do and the task of listening to our pained inner voice. Neurologically, that's how chatter divides and blurs our attention.
Much of the book, the chapters I haven't read, deal with how we can manage the chatter of our inner voice. Today I read about one useful technique: distancing. Which isn't the same as distracting or avoidance.
In 1970, Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive therapy and an influential figure in mental health, proposed that teaching patients how to objectively scrutinize their thoughts, a process he called "distancing," was a central tool that therapists should employ with their patients.
In the ensuing years, however, distancing had come to be equated with avoidance -- with not thinking about your problems. But in my mind, there is nothing inherently avoidant about distancing. In theory, you could use your mind to frame your problems from a zoomed-out perspective.
This approach differed from the meditative practice of mindfulness in that the goal wasn't to stand apart and watch one's thoughts drift by without engaging with them. The point was to engage, but to do so from a distanced perspective, which isn't the same thing as an emotionally avoidant one.
...The immersers -- the people who viewed the event from a first-person perspective -- got trapped in their emotions and the verbal flood they released. In their accounts describing their stream of thoughts, they tended to zero in on the hurt.
"Adrenaline infused. Pissed off. Betrayed," one person wrote. "Angry. Victimized. Hurt. Shamed. Stepped-on. Shitted on. Humiliated. Abandoned. Unappreciated. Pushed. Boundaries trampled upon." Their attempts to "go inside" and work through their internal conversations just led to more negative feelings.
The fly-on-the-wall group, meanwhile, offered contrasting narratives.
Where the immersers got tangled in the emotional weeds, the distancers went broad, which led them to feel better. "I was able to see the argument more clearly," wrote one person." I initially empathized better with myself but then I began to understand how my friend felt. It may have been irrational but I understand his motivation."
Their thinking was clearer and more complex, and, sure enough, they seemed to view events with the insight of a third-party observer. They were able to emerge from the experience with a constructive story.
The experiment provided evidence that stepping back to make sense of our experiences could be useful for changing the tone of our inner voice.