chatter the voice in our head

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Author: Ethan Kross

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It Ethan Kross 2021

chatter the voice in our head
chatter the voice in our head

Where the inner voice is born

From a third to a half of the time we are awake, we do not live in the present. The brain now and then loads of memories, puzzles with imaginary scenarios, throws worries, makes us imagine the near and distant future. And all this work of the mind is accompanied by endless reflections: the voice in the head advises, warns, frightens, worries, we think out old or not yet taken place disputes. All this is terribly tiring – so much so that you want to order your inner interlocutor, if not to shut up completely, then at least to be silent a little. But thoughts still come to mind, sometimes by whole hordes. We spend a huge part of our lives … in our own minds!

All this chatter can’t be stopped—and it doesn’t need to. The ability of our mind to wander, looking into the past and the future is a huge evolutionary advantage that allows people to teach and learn, tell stories, plan, dream, and avoid danger. Fortunately, nature has also provided ways that allow you to make the flow of thoughts much more effective and harmonious.

Let’s see how everything works in our minds. The most important part of it is memory: it is the ability to accumulate, filter, and store gigabytes of environmental information that allows us to navigate the world. The work of memory is closely related to our language abilities. Perceiving information in sound and speech form, the brain is able to retain it through pronunciation itself. This mechanism begins to develop in early childhood. At the same time, the language development of a person goes hand in hand with the emotional: for example, talking out loud helps kids develop self-control. A fundamental role in the maturation of the inner voice is played by the communication of children with their parents, who voluntarily or involuntarily teach their behavior patterns, and reactions to reality, including verbal ones. It is the inner voice that grows stronger in us over the years that plays a key role in creating our “I”. Reflecting on our desires, values, and needs, we thereby tell ourselves the story of our own life.

As we age, we notice that our inner storyteller is too talkative. Subconsciously, we understand that his considerations are not always related to reality, and yet we are most often unable to resist an internal dispute with ourselves. “I’m good for nothing,” “I’m afraid I won’t succeed,” “What did she mean by that?” – these are the typical formulations of our mental interlocutor.

Solomon’s Paradox

These endless internal conversations have the most detrimental effect on our attention – they distract us. Therefore, an excited goalkeeper can miss the ball, and an excited teacher can lose the thread of reasoning in a lecture. Just as a computer freezes when too many programs are running, so the brain doesn’t work as well when it’s overloaded with mental chatter.

The point is that this chatter does not have a calming effect – on the contrary, it exacerbates stress. Over and over again, playing in memory an offensive conversation or an absurd act, we get even angrier. Stress hormones are thrown into the blood again and again, which begin to poison the body: this threatens not only with emotional overwork but also with a deterioration in immunity, exacerbation of chronic diseases. The trap is that mental chewing gum completely captures our attention, not allowing us to look at the situation more broadly. At the same time, we are able to give quite sound advice to other people. The Russians say about this: “I will sort out someone else’s misfortune with my hands, but I won’t apply my mind to my own.”Ethan Cross calls this the paradox of Solomon.

The Hebrew king became famous for his wise and balanced judgments about the actions of other people (hence the idiom “Solomon’s decision”), but in his personal life he turned out to be much less far-sighted. Solomon had seven hundred wives, among whom were foreigners who convinced the king to worship the deities of other lands. This led to the fall of Solomon’s kingdom.

chatter the voice in our head

Most often, we cannot take the same saving distance in relation to the events of our own life that we have in relation to the events that occur with other people. But here lies the solution to the problem: you need to learn to look at yourself from the outside. How to do it?

20 Ways to Calm Your Inner Companion

All the ways to help distance yourself from internal chatter are divided into three types:

  • those that can be practiced independently, in the mind;
  • those that are related to other people;
  • those related to the environment.

Each person chooses methods that are closer to him, combining them in a combination that is convenient for him.

Ways to Practice in the Mind

1. Refer to yourself in the third person. As we remember, emotions and their verbal form are closely related. Therefore, the easiest way is to adjust the linguistic settings. It is curious that many memoirists use precisely this technique: the most famous example is the Notes on the Gallic War by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, in which he tells about his life, saying “he” instead of “I”. And vice versa: psychologists have found that an increase in the number of “I-posts” on a Facebook user’s page often signals his depression. Referring to ourselves in the familiar first person only makes us more stuck in the situation. A harmless “buddy, cheer up,” said to yourself, is the easiest way to shake things up.

This approach also has deeper social implications. In one study, psychologists asked people to vividly imagine a situation: they were watching a loved one commit a crime, then a police officer approached them and asked if they had seen anything. Participants who thought about what they should do using their own name in the third person (“What factors does Mark when making this decision?”) were more likely to report wrongdoing to a police officer.

chatter the voice in our head

If this form of address seems unfamiliar, imagine giving the same advice to a friend who is experiencing a similar problem. In a contentious situation involving many people, imagine a neutral observer who is motivated to find the best outcome for all parties involved.

2. Thinking about your negative experience, imagine it not as something unique, but as common to many people. In 2015, David Goldberg, Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and husband of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg 1 died in an accident. To cope with the loss, the woman began to keep a public diary on Facebook. One grammatical detail that distinguished her notes was that Sandberg recounted her experiences using the pronoun “you.” “When such a tragedy occurs, you can succumb to grief, or you can try to find meaning in life …” By formulating thoughts in this way, Sandberg made it clear to herself and others: she was not alone in such trouble, many people experienced this, her experience has universal meaning. We, humans, are social beings, and for us, there is no statement more supportive than this.

3. Regularly write down thoughts and feelings that caused strong feelings. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, let your thoughts run wild. The distance of the narrator “anesthetizes” the experiences, prompting them to treat them more judiciously.

4. When going through difficult times, think about how you will feel in a month or a year. In this perspective, many adversities often turn out to be not so terrible. Such an exercise clearly shows how changeable our emotional state is: the feeling that the mind occupies today will run out of steam the day after tomorrow.

This technique helped Ethan Cross cope with one of the main irritants of 2020 – the pandemic. At first, restless thoughts were spinning in my head like “How can I work without leaving home?”, “What will happen to the well-being of my family?”. But then Cross wondered what he would feel and do when the pandemic was over. The more he imagined this peaceful future, the more he felt how temporary the current difficulties were.

chatter the voice in our head

5. Change your perspective on the circumstances. Cross calls this “fly on the wall” move. What would the events you experience look like from the point of view of an insect sitting under the ceiling? You can imagine how you slowly move away from an unpleasant scene, how it becomes smaller and smaller in your imagination. A variation of this technique: think about how the experience correlates with other events in your life or with the fate of other people, how others would react to a similar situation (perhaps they would not see a problem in it at all).

Be careful: this technique “neutralizes” positive experiences too! If you got a promotion at work, but suddenly thought that wealth and high status are not so important in a global sense, that millionaires and beggars are equally mortal, that money is just paper … in general, if you began to think like that well-deserved joy will surely fade. Positive experiences require maximum immersion in a pleasant situation!

6. See difficulties not as problems, but as challenges. The biological response to difficulty is always the same: stress hormones enter the bloodstream, they make us breathe faster and our hearts beat faster. Sometimes this is unpleasant, but nature came up with this mechanism not so that we sabotage ourselves, but to help us mobilize (stress hormones are also produced in more harmless situations – for example, they enter the bloodstream at dawn and thereby help us wake up ). So it all depends on our interpretation. If we perceive difficulty as a problem, rapid heartbeat and “butterflies in the stomach” hold us down. When we are ready for a challenge, stress hormones invigorate us. This affects not only the psyche but also physiology: the cardiovascular system of the brave is subjected to much less stress than that of nervous people. Renaming the difficulty will help the right attitude – memories of how something similar happened to you or someone else in the past and everyone coped.

7. Use the power of uplifting rituals: let superstition work for you. It doesn’t matter if they are rooted in your culture (prayers, meditation) or invented by you. Any fixed sequence of actions:

  • gives an important sense of control over the situation;
  • distractions from experiences, redirecting attention;
  • connects us to something greater, and gives a sense of community (such is the effect of prayer).

When creating this book, Cross developed his own ritual: if you don’t write, you need to tidy up your office, clear your desktop of unnecessary papers. Another ritual of Cross is a family ritual: every morning, after returning from sports training, he bakes waffles for his children. This action allows you to feel the feeling of a day off, harmonizes the atmosphere in the house.

chatter the voice in our head

Ways that involve other people

They fall into two categories: how we can support others and how we can get support ourselves.

Ways to support others:

1. Not only sympathize but also help with advice. Everyone who comes to us with their trouble has two needs: emotional (to be heard) and cognitive (to understand what to do next). The problem is that often a person gets stuck on the first, emotional. We believe that we or the interlocutor need to “just blow off steam” – but the psyche does not work that way. Rather, a comparison with fire is appropriate here, in which, again and again, discussing the problem outside of a practical channel, we throw logs: more and more new negative associations come to mind, old grievances are remembered, grief grows. It is much more productive to combine sympathy with useful advice.But remember that advice can also turn out to be unsolicited, it hits the self-esteem of worried people more than you might think. Hence the following rule:

2. Invisible support is more effective than direct help. Clean up the house, even if tired loved ones do not ask for it. Create comfortable conditions for your husband or wife to work remotely. In the presence of a person who needs help, casually start a conversation about a similar problem without getting personal, and ask those around you for advice.

3. Hug a loved one. When people feel the gentle touch of loved ones, they subconsciously interpret it as a signal of safety. This feeling is fixed at the neurochemical level: at such moments, the pleasure hormone oxytocin enters our bloodstream.

4. Teach your children to pretend to be superheroes in difficult situations, and mentally call themselves the name of their favorite character.

Such a game is one of the most effective self-confidence simulators: when the child grows up, faith in a superhero will go away, but confidence will remain.

Psychologists call this the “Batman effect.” In one experiment, children on a boring task were asked to pretend to be superheroes and then ask themselves how they did the task by referring to themselves by the character’s name. The children who did this showed far greater perseverance in completing the task than the children who reflected on their work by referring to themselves in the first person (children in the third group, who used their own name in reasoning, also performed better than “I “-group).

chatter the voice in our head

5. Be a source of confidence for others. We, humans, are a social species, and therefore we influence each other much more than we think. And super-confident people listen to the opinions of others. Even a random replica has a huge positive or negative effect. Let’s instill confidence in each other more often! Feel free to cheer up relatives and friends, remind them of their achievements, and tell them how proud you are of them.

Ways to get support:

1. For each problem – its own adviser. There are no universal advisers, everyone has their own experience. Does your spouse dote on you, is always ready to help, but does not understand your work at all? This means that it is more convenient to discuss professional problems with a colleague or best friend. Economists know that diversifying a portfolio of stocks means profit and security; This also applies to diversifying relationships.

2. Don’t neglect physical contact. Knowing their benefits, you can not wait for someone to want to hug you, but ask someone close to hug you or just squeeze your hand. Even squeezing an inanimate object like a teddy bear is useful.

3. In difficult times, look at a photo of a loved one. So you appeal to the social instinct deeply rooted in us: we are stronger together, not alone. The very idea that there is always someone ready to support drowns out the inner interlocutor.

4. Be inspired by the power of collective rituals, whether it be a joint meditation, a corporate anthem, or an organ music concert.

5. Use social media to get real support, not to kill time. This setting allows you to fully use the advantages of social networks (quick communication, a wide circle of acquaintances) and level out the disadvantages (communication not with real people, but with embellished avatars; users’ tendency to aggression).

Methods related to the surrounding space

1. Organize the space around you. The space of the house reflects the inner world of its owner. The state of the desktop reflects the state of mind of the person sitting at that table. The easiest way to regain a sense of control over the situation is to put things in order around you, put things in their places 2 . Develop your own space ordering system or choose a ready-made one (Getting Things Done, etc.). Well, if it becomes a habit, the importance of which was discussed above.

2. Get out in nature more often. Trees, grass, clouds, birds – contemplation is directly related to the relaxation of the nervous and cardiovascular systems. In addition, observing nature “recharges the batteries” of attention.

In 1984, Dr. Roger Ulrich published a landmark article in the journal Science, “View from the window can affect recovery after surgery.” Ulrich studied the history of operated patients at the Pennsylvania Hospital. All patients lay in the same wards, but the windows of some rooms overlooked the park, and others – on a blank brick wall. Patients in rooms overlooking the park needed fewer painkillers, their nurses were a third less likely to leave remarks like “upset” and “depressed” in their medical records, and they recovered earlier. Subsequently, studies by other physicians have repeatedly confirmed Ulrich’s idea: the influence of nature at times speeds up the recovery of patients.

chatter the voice in our head

If frequent walks in the park do not fit into the schedule, surround yourself with nature at the workplace: even films and photographs on this topic have an invigorating effect. Listening to sounds of nature like the sound of rain and the chirping of crickets is no less useful. Research shows that exposing people to the sounds of nature improves the performance of tasks that require concentration. A simple mixture of music and natural sounds reduces pain and anxiety in patients.

In 2012, in a hospital in Amsterdam, researchers set up three types of waiting rooms: some with real plants, others with their images, and others without greenery at all. The stress level of the patients fell in the first two cases and did not change in the third.

chatter the voice in our head

3. Look for inspiration, and use the power of reverence. What makes you tremble: the contemplation of the original “La Gioconda”? Bach fugues? daily prayer? a memory of how your child said the first word? The feeling of reverence is one of the most powerful and beneficial, whether we are talking about religious or the most worldly experiences. It allows us to go beyond our current worries, to see events on a different scale. In moments when we feel reverence, the line between self-awareness and the world around us blurs. We seem to be shrinking in size – and at the same time, our problems are shrinking. Our inner interlocutor is lost in front of something big.

Evolution has done a good job of perpetuating this feeling in us: it helps to unite with others, levels out personal interests, allows you to feel the collective nature of the human species – once it gave the advantage of survival.

chatter the voice in our head

Find something that inspires you with a sense of awe, and try to cultivate that emotion when you realize that the inner talker is starting to get on your nerves. Turn on the right music at the right time, look at your favorite picture, which was hung on the wall of the office in advance, evoke a valuable memory. The good thing about this technique is that you don’t need to rethink the negative experience or change your perspective on the problem—just surrender to the pleasant feeling.

The power of suggestion

Many of the described ways of emotional support are based on the placebo effect. Doctors call this a neutral substance used in pharmaceutical research to evaluate the effectiveness of a real drug. Often, however, patients will benefit from a placebo if they are sure they are taking the real drug.

For depressed patients, yellow placebo pills are more effective than blue ones. Fake injections work better than bogus pills. Large “pills” are more effective than small ones.

chatter the voice in our head

Moreover, a placebo has a healing effect even if patients know they are taking a dummy but are aware of the placebo effect. How is this possible? First, naturally, taking pills, wait for improvement. Secondly, the environment is important: white coats, doctor’s advice, the consciousness that one can receive healing here. This is where the secret lies: a beneficial role on the body and psyche has the effect of waiting for recovery.

The brain is a true expectation machine. We cannot help but wait: neither when we buy a lottery ticket, nor when we go on a first date, nor when we insert the key into the keyhole of our own apartment (just in the latter case, the expectation that there will be a familiar environment behind the door has long been built into our picture of the world). If you have a headache and you, swallowing a pill, tell yourself that it will get better soon, the brain begins to drown out doubts about the uselessness of the medicine – and you really feel better.

The placebo effect is not only about pain relief, but also about pleasure: if the description of expensive wine in an elegant bottle mentions light notes of the fennel, its taste will seem thinner than the taste of the same wine in a simple bottle. Of course, frankly, a bad wine cannot be confused with an excellent vintage. But if the tasted products are approximately the same in quality, if we are talking about not very big differences, then expectations turn out to be more influential than real sensations.

Even stronger are social expectations: what we hope to hear from others. Therefore, it is so important not to dwell on the negative, but to encourage yourself and others more often, and in general to expect its best manifestations from life. It is important to look at life more broadly… Take a step back from your worries, open up to the world and people, become bigger than yourself – and the inner talker will calm down.

Top 10 Thoughts

1. The best view of the problem is from the outside. Assess the importance of difficulties in time perspective, write down your thoughts, and refer to yourself in the third person.

2. When reflecting on your negative experience, don’t present it as something unique. It’s better to say to yourself: “It happens to everyone …”

3. The easiest way to regain a sense of control over the situation is to streamline the space around: clean up the room, put things in their places.

4. Use social media to get real support from real people, not to kill time.

5. If you are approached for support, always accompany empathy with practical advice, otherwise you will get stuck in a problem with the interlocutor. If you yourself apply for support, be careful in choosing an assistant: decide in advance who from your environment what kind of support is better to ask.

6. Don’t neglect physical contact. Even squeezing a teddy bear has a beneficial effect on the psyche.

7. Charge from your favorite rituals and habits: religious, cultural, and domestic.

8. Teach your kids to pretend to be superheroes in difficult situations – this trains their self-confidence.

9. Get out in nature more often. Surround yourself with nature at home and at work: even films and photos on this topic have an invigorating effect.

10. Find something that inspires you with a sense of awe, and address this emotion in difficult times.

1.  Read the summaries of Sheryl Sandberg’s books Plan B. How to survive adversity, gather strength and feel the joy of life again, and  Don’t be afraid to take action. Women, work and the will to lead”. 

2.  Read David Allen’s GTD summary and  Magic Cleanup. The Japanese art of putting things in order at home and in life” by  Marie Kondo.

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