In Buddhism it’s referred to as “monkey mind”—that cascade of often critical and judgmental self-talk that runs in a ceaseless loop in our heads. In Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross provides a useful introduction to some of the intriguing research on this phenomenon and offers a toolbox full of constructive techniques for quieting our persistent inner voice or, better yet, turning it in a positive direction.
When he received an anonymous threatening letter several years ago, Kross, who directs the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, first turned inward to investigate how our default biological state creates an “inescapable tension of the inner voice as both helpful superpower and destructive kryptonite.” Any attempt to silence that voice, he explains, is doomed, but through a process of trial and error, most people can find some method of transforming it from foe to friend.
Relying on a host of laboratory studies and compelling anecdotal evidence—like the story of major league pitcher Rick Ankiel, who suddenly lost the ability to control a baseball but reinvented himself as an outfielder—Kross is an amiable guide through this fascinating and complex territory. He illustrates the value of the simple act of distancing—visualizing oneself as a third-party observer or invoking mental time travel—to gain perspective on how a momentary crisis might appear to a neutral party or with the benefit of hindsight. In one experiment, something as simple as a temporary shift from negative “I-talk” to referring to oneself in the second or third person provided dramatic benefits. And in one revealing chapter, Kross explains how placebos and rituals can help tame the worst aspects of the inner voice.
“The challenge isn’t to avoid negative states altogether,” he concludes. “It’s to not let them consume you.” Anyone seeking help along that road will find Chatter a useful traveling companion.