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

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

As human beings, we frequently have silent conversations with ourselves. Popularly referred to as “inner speech” this powerful medium of language governs not only our interactions with the environment surrounding us, but also shapes our unconscious relationships with ourselves. Writer and psychologist, Charles Fernyhough, provided a splendid and lasting perspective on this phenomenon in his book, The Voices Within. Now, American experimental psychologist, neuroscientist, and Professor of Psychology and Management at the University of Michigan, Ethan Kross, in a compelling book titled “Chatter”, writes about the perils and potential of the ‘inner monologue’ before setting out a slew of ‘tools’ to harness the power of such silent albeit eventful conversations.

Kross’ findings represent the outcome of a myriad number of empirical research conducted by neuroscientists and psychologists (including Kross’ own experiments at the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory, of which he is the Director, at Michigan University), about the human brain. Kross unearths a remarkable similarity between conversing with others and talking to ourselves. To back this argument, Kross refers his readers to the work of Belgian psychologist Bernard Rime. Rime discovered that in the same way in which our inner voice is triggered during moments of extreme stress, human beings also feel compelled to talk to one another when caught between a rock and a hard place.   

This inner voice can also be an absolute demon. Incessant and unwelcome chatter when it intrudes upon our day to day activities, may have threatening and unintended consequences. Kross articulates this aspect in agonizing detail, by explaining to his readers the mental block that put paid to the hopes of the much touted Major League Baseball pitcher, Rick Ankiel.

Kross writes about a study that found out that we talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to spitting out 4,000 words per minute. In comparison, the American President’s State of the Union address, usually runs to about 6,000 words, and lasts more than an hour. Thus in one single day, we talk to ourselves using words that would constitute 320 State of the Union addresses. In order to distinguish constructive from the cacophony, Kross offers a “toolbox” that can be effectively employed to tone down chatter.

For example, Kross urges us to practice what he terms “distanced self-talk”. This represents having a conversation with ourselves as though we were a different persona altogether. This provides an invaluable “fly-on-the-wall” perspective using which we can impartially evaluate our actions, follies, and frailties. When LeBron James made what at that time was a very difficult move from Cleveland Cavaliers to Miami Heat, he reinforced his belief in various interviews by slipping into the second or third person narrative. “And then there was the American historian Henry Adams’s Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography, published in 1918, which he narrated entirely in the third person. In keeping with this stylistic approach, he didn’t title the book My Education or something similar. He called it The Education of Henry Adams.”

Kross writes about the study conducted by psychologists Stephanie Carlson and Rachel White. This study led to the pioneering of a concept known as the “Batman Effect”. A group of children were encouraged to pretend they were a superhero as they were given an unappealing task designed to simulate the experience of having to complete a tedious homework assignment. “The kids were asked to assume the role of the character and then ask themselves how they were performing on the task using the character’s name. For example, a girl in the study who was pretending to be Dora the Explorer was instructed to ask herself, “Is Dora working hard?” during the study. Carlson and White found that the kids who did this persevered longer than children who reflected on their experience the normal way using “I.” (Kids in a third group who used their own names also outperformed the I-group.)”

A few other techniques from the Kross repertoire include:

Practicing “awe” inducing activities such as getting oneself immersed in a monumental work of art, or taking a leisurely walk in the mountains, or even watching a toddler take her first tiny, hesitant step;

Journaling. Writing a daily journal and also setting down on paper (don’t bother with the nitpicking over grammar) the most negative effects experienced by the writer during the course of that particular day;

Normalization. The realisation that you are not the only sufferer of adverse consequences in the world can help one overcome the effects of negative chatter in the head;

The power of touch. Just the innocuous gesture of putting a hand over someone’s shoulder can have the positive result of providing adequate strength and succour in dealing with negative chatter. However, as Kross warns, this technique can be resorted to only when such a touch is welcome.

Rituals. Getting into a habitual ritual may also be helpful even though there are people who take this technique to hitherto unimagined heights. The well known model Heidi Klum is supposed to carry her baby teeth in a tiny bag to overcome the fear of flying. During turbulence, she is known to clutch her bag tight. Stephanie Rice, the Australian Olympic swimmer swings her arms eight times, presses her goggles four times, and touches her cap four times before every race.

Placebos can also be a powerful medium to control and reign in negative chatter. Self-belief and conviction combine to induce commensurate physiological changes that result  in various positive outcomes. The placebo effect was demonstrated in somewhat unusual circumstances in the eighteenth century by Franz Anton Mesmer. A physician trained in Vienna, Mesmer laid claims to a path breaking development in the field of medicine. According to Mesmer, a whole horde of physical as well as emotional ailments could be reversed by an alteration of the flow of an imperceptible force that coursed through the universe using magnetic principles alone. Armed with a plethora of magnets, Mesmer repeatedly pulled rabbits out of multiple hats. He miraculously cured people’s conditions by channeling this invisible energy with magnets and his hands. He called this technique ‘animal magnetism.’ It would later be immortalized as “mesmerism.”

He even cured, albeit for a temporary period, the blindness of Maria Theresia von Paradis, an Austrian musician and composer who lost her sight at an early age, and for whom Mozart may have written his Piano Concerto No. 18. Benjamin Franklin, the great American inventor, and scientist who happened to be in the same location as Mesmer, was commissioned to investigate the veracity of the physician’s techniques. Franklin’s study concluded that the cures had nothing to do with mesmerism. The technique of animal magnetism invested in the patients a sense of conviction and positive affirmation which, in turn led to the curing of their ailments. What Mesmer did was just encourage a placebo effect.

At the end of the book, Kross informs his readers about a curricula which he, in tandem with his team, has devised on the cause and consequence of chatter that can be taught in schools. Kross is steadfast in his view that children should be imparted the science behind the inner conversations. Such lessons would greatly help them in self-regulation.

With an insidious pandemic wreaking global havoc, mental fragilities have exponentially increased leading to depression and mental fatigue. Kross’ timely work could not have been published at a more relevant and appropriate juncture. His work on channeling, harnessing, and dumbing down on our voices within is an indispensable salve to be applied liberally.