We’ve all got a voice in our head. (Maybe you can hear yours, right now, reading these words.) And though you’re intimately familiar with that inner voice, since it talks to you all day long, you might be surprised to learn just how incessant it is. According to one study, it can spew up to four thousand words a minute. If you’re awake for sixteen hours, that’s more than 3.8 million words every day. That’s because that voice does so much for you: It helps you keep information in your head (remembering, say, a phone number or items on a grocery list), simulates and plans for upcoming events, like a date or an interview, coaches you through problems, and even narrates your life to make sense of your experiences. It’s a good thing. Mostly.
“We’re talking about this fundamentally important feature of the human mind, which is the inner voice,” says Ethan Kross, a psychologist and neuroscientist who studies introspection at the Emotion & Self-Control Laboratory he founded at the University of Michigan. “It does lots of good stuff for us but sometimes becomes our worst enemy.” It tips into worst-enemy territory, Kross says, when it becomes chatter. “Chatter is the dark side of the inner voice,” he continues. “Sometimes shit happens, we turn our attention inward to try to make sense of the problem, but we don’t come up with solutions. Instead, we start spinning. We worry, we ruminate, we catastrophize, we get stuck in the negative thought loop.”
Chatter is what happens when athletes choke, when their inner voice becomes so loud and critical that it disrupts their ability to perform otherwise routine and automatic feats. It’s also what jolts you awake in the middle of the night, keeping you fixated on that awkward exchange from earlier in the day or wondering if maybe that afternoon headache was the sign of an advanced neurological disease. You’ve likely experienced it during the pandemic, worrying about how and when you might catch the virus. Chatter makes it hard for us to focus on our work and be present in our relationships, and has even been shown to negatively impact our physical health to such a degree that it can alter our DNA. Scary stuff.
But Kross thinks that your inner voice doesn’t have to be a burden. Which is why, last year, he wrote a book called Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. Using tools he’s picked up from his own experience and from the work he’s done in his lab, he wants to not only provide useful ideas for how to cope with chatter at this particularly uncertain moment; he’s also hoping to normalize chatter, to help us realize that negative talk comes standard with the rest of our human software. As Kross puts it, “When people say, ‘Oh my god, I’m experiencing chatter, is something wrong with me,’ I say, ‘No, welcome to the human condition.”
GQ: You have a long list of techniques in the book that can be helpful in drawing us out when we’re stuck in negative thought loops. Which ones do you find most useful?