Ethan Kross has written an interesting book that confronts that rarely discussed subject – the voice we all have in our heads… the one where we talk to ourselves. You know the one, the voice that very occasionally says ‘well done’, but more likely admonishes or criticises our every mistake; the voice that compares us unfavourably to others and all too often its this voice that is highly critical and unreasonably judgemental of others. Of course, our inner voice can also be our best friend in moments of need and a valuable source of comfort and support. Our inner voice can be incredibly comforting and helpful, but it can also be problematic. This book not only examines the concept of the inner voice but also gives us some practical tips and tools on how we can control our chatter and make best use of it.
We are generally reluctant to admit that we talk to ourselves, in a packed room it takes a few brave souls to admit to it; for others to follow suit and confirm that the practice is pretty much universal. We spend an awful lot of our time talking to ourselves; about the past, the present and the future – in fact Kross says that research suggests we all spend between a third and a half of our time not living in the present.
Mankind Kross says has long grappled with the concept that we talk (and listen) to ourselves. Early Christians considered the voices demonic, while Chinese Buddhists referred to it as “deluded thought”. All civilisations have struggled to understand and explain the existence of our ‘inner voice’ but it is a reality and we all have it – even deaf people who use sign language report an ability to communicate with themselves. Many people report that their inner voice reflects the sound of their own voice while others hear a different person’s tone. Perhaps more interestingly some people hear several voices with some of them not always being their own.
The book examines a study in New York – where volunteers agree to download the ‘chatter’ taking place in their heads over a period of time. What emerges is the random and far reaching range of thoughts that come and go in people’s heads. People flit from a range of practical issues to deeper contemplations. People seemed to randomly inter-disperse a range of deep and meaningful thoughts almost concurrently with practical and almost trivial thoughts. Our minds literally seem to jump from one issue to another. Kross describes our ability to move from the past, to the present and to the future as a form of ‘time travel’ which he sees as a valuable feature, unique to the human mind; affording us a prodigious and valuable ability to make sense of our experiences.
Kross valuably shares some thoughts on how we can control our chatter and use our inner voice to benefit our wellbeing. Distancing our self-talk and making it less personal can be advantageous he says. Simple techniques of talking to yourself using your name (a lot of us do this – in fact NBA star LeBron James regularly talks about himself in the third person) or we can try switching from the first person “I” to the third person “you” or “he” or “she”, this can be a positive mechanism to achieve some much needed social distance and enhanced perspective. Distanced self-talk has been proven to help us calm ourselves and helps to regulate our emotions. I interpreted this a little like our limited ability to give ourselves the good advice we frequently give to others – sometimes perhaps you can be too close to a problem to see or analyse it appropriately.
Chatter valuably explores the impact of our environment on our inner voice with researchers establishing that those living in ‘green spaces’ found to be generally experiencing more positive outlooks and a range of health benefits than those living in enclosed urban spaces. Trees and the countryside seem to act as a kind of mental vitamin or supplement, making us both generally healthier, happier and more positive in our outlooks. It seems researchers have also found that simply watching nature and the countryside on our televisions can also have positive impacts for our mind, our attitudes and our contemplations.
Chatter also provides some interesting and uplifting insights into how we can apply the concept of distance to both our inner voice and wider life events. When adverse things happen – as they invariably do; we all have a choice, whether to personalise things and focus on why a particular event happened to us, or we can chose to see things in a wider universal context and accept that the occurrence that has afflicted us is by no means unique and happens to many others too; effectively all hardship is universal. Research certainly seems to suggest that this latter approach helps us to deal more effectively with adverse events and equips us to place things in a more appropriate context.
One of the ways many of us deal with internal Chatter is to talk to others… its what we have been taught to do from an early age. Many of us have friendships based almost solely upon the mutual unloading and sharing of our bad experiences. Chatter asks the important question; whether this is a good or a bad thing and asks whether it is healthy for us to undertake this common practice. Research seems to suggest that the mutual venting of emotions; far from making us feel better; the process of repeating and rehashing negative experiences aloud, may actually make us feel worse, as we recite negative experiences over and over again and internalise them more and more. It is also important to recognise that these types of relationship by their very nature involve a reciprocal element, so they naturally involve being subjected to the other parties’ negative experiences too. A problem shared…. may in fact be a problem multiplied.
The book concludes with a powerful list of tools we can all employ to enhance the control our chatter and provides us with some practical steps to help us feel better. These include:
Distance your self-talk and try referring to yourself in the third person, when talking to yourself imagine you are advising a friend rather than yourself, try to broaden your perspective and try not to personalise things, normalise your experiences, things don’t just happen to you – they happen to lots of people all the time, utilise the brains ability to time travel, think how you will feel in a month, three months or twelve months’ time – it’s not always about today. Try performing rituals; an easy to follow concept best exemplified by Rafa Nadal the tennis player – have you ever noticed the range of peculiar and slightly annoying habits he deploys on court – repeating them over and over again – placing his water bottle in a specific place and fiddling with clothing and hair and bouncing the ball a specific number of times before each serve. What Nadal is doing Kross tells us is engaging in a concept referred to as ‘compensatory control’ – in a high pressure tennis match he is creating a series of events that he can control that are designed to prevent other chatter taking hold that could otherwise distract him – twenty Grand Slam tennis titles suggest he is doing something right.
This is a positive, interesting, thought provoking and enjoyable read which presents a valuable insight into how our brains work, sensitively discusses our inner voice, which for many of us is a valuable and reliable friend. Chatter presents some valuable choices and discusses the options available to all of us to help gain control over our inner voice that may ultimately benefit our wellbeing.
I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is intrigued by that relentless voice that chats away inside our heads.