Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It
January 29, 2021
" An award-winning psychologist reveals how to overcome the negative voice in your head and go from inner critic to inner coach."
Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It by Ethan Kross, Crown
We all talk to ourselves far more than we talk to others. This ongoing conversation we have with ourselves can be a source of great strength and of debilitating panic. Our inner voices can serve as “our best coach” or our “worst critic,” and can digress into the latter in an unsuspecting instant. We can become stuck on one persistent negative thought, about something we did or something done to us, cycling over and over again with the potential to spiral out of control, ruining relationships and our ability to fully function in the process if we allow it to.
But we don’t have to let it. What if I told you that there is a way our inner dialogue “can be harnessed to make people happier, healthier, and more productive,” that you could learn it for yourself, and that I know exactly the place to turn for such guidance?
“Well,” to borrow some words from the children's book Robo-Sauce, in which a boy is given a secret recipe to turn himself into a giant awesome robot, “guess what? There is. You can. I do.”
That place is in a new book, Chatter, by experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross. Kross studies something you’d think unstudiable: “the silent conversations people have with themselves.” Being a scientist, he offers a fascinating array of insights into the mechanisms of working memory, how we manage verbal information, linguistic neural pathways, and even emotional growth, explaining how they develop and evolve over time in response to our upbringing and our environment. Being a social scientist, it isn’t simply a matter of studying observable physical phenomena, things like equal and opposite reactions, but examining the culture we are immersed in and our history. As he writes:
In short, the voices of culture influence our parents’ inner voices, which in turn influence our own, and so on through the many cultures and generations that combine to tune our minds. We are like Russian nesting dolls of mental conversations.
It is also about how we shape that culture in our time within it. The conversation quickly moves from one we internalize to one we participate in, helping us understand the world around us and our place in it. It helps us navigate interpersonal relationships, set goals, and change paths if need be. All human beings have roots in an oral tradition, in the stories we inherit and pass on. Kross helps us appreciate how, in that context, our inner voice helps us write the most “foundational psychological story of all: our identities.”
But when the volume is turned up too loud on our inner voice, when it becomes overly critical and inescapable, it can overwhelm us and morph into what he calls “chatter.” That chatter can make us lose the ability to do things that we once mastered, like aim a baseball, and it can happen to even the most polished and professional among us. One famous example of this is the “yips,” which I understand all too well having developed them when I lost the ability to throw a ball accurately to first base for a time while playing shortstop as a teenager. It didn’t last long, but there was a week or two where every time I released a ball from my right hand, I had no confidence it wouldn’t end up well over the first baseman’s head or skipping in the dirt three feet in front of him. I felt, in fact, that I couldn’t do otherwise. But at least I wasn’t on national television doing it, as was the case with a young Rick Ankiel, who suddenly lost his ability to pitch strikes after making his way to the Major Leagues on that very ability. Kross uses his case and others to illustrate how the conversations we have with ourselves can undermine us to the point where it affects abilities we have already mastered, how it can impede more than just our physical abilities, and how we can overcome.
An unsupportive inner voice can ultimately affect our executive function, our ability to control our thoughts and behavior—our very self-control. I am sure most of us have had moments where we “lost it,” but we can also become lost in it for extended periods, and the result can be far worse than losing the ability to throw a baseball. The inability to control our inner dialogue can ruin our ability to engage in any dialogue with others. It can end in loneliness and isolation. In this time of increased social isolation due to our need for physical distancing, learning to stop the cycle of negative self-talk is critical to our happiness, health, and ability to function. Perhaps Rick Ankiel’s example can help. After losing his ability to throw strikes, and his career in the process, he reinvented himself in the minor leagues and eventually made it all the way back to “the show” as a strong-armed outfielder and power hitter—becoming the first player to pull off that feat since "Lefty" O'Doul did it in the 1920s—hitting 47 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2009.
We are often admonished to live in the present, and it is a wonderful thing to master, but there is a reason our minds are drawn to reflecting on the past and imagining our future. As with our emotions, trying to ignore our inner voice and push down our negative inner thoughts is a surefire way to ensure they stay inside us, where they can linger, cycle, and cause us harm. To acknowledge our verbal thoughts is to process them, to be able to use them constructively and let them go. A large part of living in the present is being present with our thoughts, to listen to our inner voice. It is a part of how we make sense of the world, and how we take time to disconnect from it, as well. Kross offers a toolbox to help us navigate this inner terrain, from how best to “interact in our increasingly immersive digital lives” to how we can use the natural world around us to reduce the chatter and be “happier, healthier, and more productive,”
Happiness may be fleeting, and our health will ultimately fail, but the quality and tenor of the conversations we have with ourselves will help us be as happy and as healthy for as long as humanly possible, and provide us an opportunity to make a positive contribution in the lives of those and the culture around us. And—while I think our culture’s emphasis on personal productivity has become more than a little unhealthy itself—it can even make us more productive. We don’t need a secret recipe to turn ourselves into robots, or welcome any new robot overlords, in the process. Quite the opposite, we must reconnect with that which makes us most human, our ability to find and listen to our own inner voice, one that is the result of our ancestors, of the lives and the life around us. We simply have to listen more closely, learn to manage our inner voice, and become less uncomfortable and more confident in having “one of the most important conversations of conscious life: the ones we have with ourselves.”