We’ve all been there. Stuck in our own heads, fixated on a two-minute conversation from three days ago. We replay it over and over. I shouldn’t have snapped at Dad. He was always so patient when I was growing up. We get stuck. The voice in our heads goes from an ally to a vicious nag, just looping uselessly over the same things, again and again and again.
Ethan Kross, an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, wants to teach us how to control the voices in our heads. Not the voices of mental illness, mind you, just the little voice we all have, cheerily (or naggingly) narrating our lives as we go about our days.
The goal is not to stop talking to ourselves. That would be a bad thing.
According to Kross, our inner voices can be one of our greatest strengths—when we can control them. Those inner voices can take us to whole other worlds, allow us to imagine different pasts or exciting futures, but they can also trap us in a hell of our own making.
In his new book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, Kross walks readers through a number of different strategies to control mental chatter. A key strategy is “distanced self-talk,” using language to create mental distance from yourself. The best medicine for being stuck on a problem is to gain perspective on it. And a way to gain that perspective is to talk to yourself as if you were another person. You can never be certain what he was thinking, Liz. He might have appreciated your retort.
I spoke to Kross via Zoom about how we can define mental chatter, what goes on in our brains during a chatter spiral, and, of course, how to control that nagging, looping voice in our heads.
What is chatter?
When we experience problems, we often turn our attention inward to make sense of them. But we often get stuck. We ruminate, we worry, we catastrophize. Chatter refers to those negative thought loops that characterize that experience of being stuck. It can involve perseverating about the past, which we call rumination, perseverating about the future, we call that worry. That’s what chatter is.
How can you recognize the difference between your normal stream of consciousness and when you are starting to go into a chatter spiral?
Typically it’s when you find yourself rehearsing the same things over and over again. Rather than coming up with a more clear, objective solution to a problem. And you find that those negative thoughts are really beginning to prevent you from doing other things in ways that can be counter-productive. I think most of the time when people are experiencing chatter, they know it.
The human mind didn’t evolve to always be in the moment.
What are the effects of chatter?
It can make it really hard for us to think and perform well. And one principal reason for that is you only have so much ability to focus at any given moment in time. And so if all your focus is devoted toward your chatter, good luck getting anything done.
It can also have social consequences. When we experience chatter it can often lead to enhanced friction in our relationships. And it could do so in a variety of ways. We go to other people and talk about our problems and we keep talking about them and keep talking, and that pushes other people away. Or, when we’re experiencing heightened negative emotions, we often can lash out at other people. We displace our emotions on them.
What chatter does is take a stressful experience and prolong it. Stress in and of itself isn’t bad. What makes stress bad is when it’s prolonged over time, and that’s what chatter really does.
How do we quiet chatter?
Different strategies work for different people in different situations. And it’s really about combinations of strategies. When I experience chatter, I do several things. I’ll do distanced self-talk. I’ll do temporal distancing. I have some chatter advisors that help give me some perspective. Those aren’t the people who I’m necessarily closest to, but they’re people who are adept at helping me when I’m struggling with something. And I’ll also take walks in nature and tidy up the office around me.
In Chatter you talk about how you halted a particularly bad spiral by calling yourself by name. That’s fascinating to me, the idea that what we call ourselves in the privacy of our own head has real discernible effects.
We know that it’s a lot easier for people to give advice to others than it is to take that advice ourselves. And what we’ve learned is that language provides us with a tool for coaching ourselves through our problems like we were talking to another person. It involves using your name and other non-first person pronouns, like “you” or “he” or “she.” That’s distanced self-talk. It’s a tool that many people stumble on without really understanding how it works. The lab work shows this tool gives you some mental space, some psychological distance from our problems, which helps you give yourself more constructive advice for how to deal with a situation.
Why do you think that is?
The idea is that when you use a name to refer to yourself, it’s almost like an automatic perspective switch. It’s switching your perspective because you’re so used to using these parts of speech when you address others.
Does it matter what you call yourself? First name, last name, nickname?
We haven’t systematically explored whether it’s, you know, “All right, Ethan, you could do this” or “All right, E-man,” or things like that. We think the reason why names and pronouns are so useful is that these are parts of speech that we almost exclusively use when we think about and refer to other people. We know that with kids you can get benefits by having them imagine they’re a superhero. This is called the Batman effect, where if a kid’s struggling with a problem, you say something like, “Okay. Matt, what would Batman do in this situation? Imagine you’re Batman, and guide yourself through the problem.”
When you get rejected by another person, you don’t know what to do. We find it helps to talk about your personal experience not in the first person but using the generic version of you. What we find is that this is a linguistic device that helps people make meaning out of their negative experiences. It pushes the experience away from you. It’s not just me who’s experiencing it, it’s the world. Anyone who experiences something like this would respond this way. That gives you some distance and also helps you normalize your experience.
The human mind didn’t evolve to always be in the moment.
In Chatter you say that nature, even virtual nature, can have a really positive effect on our inner voice.
Yes. The idea behind why nature can be so useful is it gives our attention the ability to recharge. And the way it does so is by subtly drawing our attention to things that are interesting to us, but don’t necessarily take a whole lot of bandwidth for us to make sense of. Virtual nature can still have a positive effect, but there does appear to be a dose response relationship. So the more intense and immersive an actual experience is, the larger the gain. Another mechanism that explains how nature can be useful is by promoting feelings of awe. The sense that you’re in the presence of something vast that you can’t explain. That gives you a sense of perspective, makes your concerns feel smaller.
Why do our brains chatter?
When we experience negative emotions and try to analyze our feelings, we often zoom in narrowly on the experience to the exclusion of other ways of thinking about the event that could lead us to feel better. This leads us to get stuck in a negative cycle of thinking and feeling where we rehash what we felt and are feeling in ways that lead us to feel stuck. This psychological experience corresponds to increased levels of activity in brain networks that support self-referential and emotional processing in the brain. With respect to why this happens, it’s a case of an otherwise adaptive response—engaging in self-reflection to solve a problem—that runs off track in a particular circumstance.
What does a chatter spiral look like in the brain?
We see heightened levels of activation in a network of brain regions that are active when we think about ourselves as compared to other people. So this self-referential processing network, which tends to be more active among people who are clinically anxious and depressed, is also active when you look at people experiencing chatter.
And what is the self-referential network?
It’s a group of regions along the cortical midline: the dorsal singulate, the posterior singulate—it’s the same network that lights up when you put a person in a brain scanner and let them think about whatever they want to think about. Their thoughts naturally drift to self-related experiences. So it’s thinking about the self. That’s what’s more active when people are in these chatter states.
What kind of testing have you done to back these ideas up?
We’ve done some work in the brain with distanced self-talk, in the self-referential processing and emotional processing areas. What was interesting about the brain-imaging work is we see less activation in self-referential and emotional-processing networks, but we see no additional increase in activations in cognitive control networks, which are often invoked when we’re trying to regulate ourselves. The idea behind that is it feels difficult to rein in our emotions. But these linguistic shifts seem to be a bit easier for people to use. The shifts they provide to people’s perspectives are a bit more effortless. And we think part of the reason why that is, is because of just how tightly linked names are with thinking about other people.
There’s a trend at the moment in popular culture toward mindfulness. How do you feel about that?
I think mindfulness is great. And I think there’s a lot of great data behind it. The only caveat I would have about mindfulness is that it’s one tool amidst many. I think the challenge is to figure out how the different tools work together. The message behind mindfulness is sometimes taken too far in the sense of “you should always be in the moment.” The human mind didn’t evolve to always be in the moment, and we can derive enormous benefit from traveling in time, thinking about the past and future. So I think the challenge is to figure out how we can help people travel in time in their minds more effectively without getting stuck, rather than saying shut down the time travel machine altogether when you’re upset.
Can chatter be productive?
The inner voice is often amazing. It’s a super power. It helps us do a lot of different things. I equate chatter with an unproductive state of the inner voice. So I think once you’re in chatter, thought loops, we’re not talking productivity anymore. We’re talking about the opposite. But that is not to say that the goal should be to silence our inner voice or stop talking to ourselves. I think that would be a bad thing. The challenge is to figure out how to talk to yourself and use language to weigh in on your problems without getting stuck in chatter.
Liz Greene is the managing editor at Nautilus.
Lead image: GoodStudio / Shutterstock