Can We Control The Voice Inside Our Head?
February 6, 2021
This book review appeared in The New Yorker. I already knew the answer (we can’t but we can learn to not believe the voice) but enjoyed the review.
The short film referenced in the review is available on YouTube. I won’t provide a link to it because it is not only dark but also rather offensive in its language. If you are into that sort of thing, it is rather funny with an ending that will leave you thinking.
Here is the book review:
In “The Voice in Your Head,” a darkly comic short film by the writer-director Graham Parkes, a man wakes up every morning to find a fit, hipsterish dope perched next to his bed. “Good morning, fucko,” the dope says. “Ready for another disappointing day?” The camera follows the pair from the shower (“Your penis is very small”) to the car (“You know your dad hates you”) and then to work, where the dope, wearing a pin-striped olive jacket and gold chain, keeps the bit going through lunchtime. (“Eat normal.”) He’s a nuisance, a torment, and not especially original—the kind of bargain-bin hater that makes all the rest of us critics look bad.
This dope, or some form of him, is also the subject of “Chatter,” a new book by the experimental psychologist Ethan Kross. (The book’s subtitle—“The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It”—reflects a slightly warmer attitude toward our inner cynic, who can also, Kross suggests, become our “best coach.”) It’s an irresistible thought experiment: What does yours look like? A drill sergeant? A languidly bored crush? Kross, who studies the “science of introspection” at the University of Michigan’s Emotion & Self-Control Lab, which he founded, aims to produce a different sort of portrait, one pieced together from MRI scans and clinical observations.
“Chatter,” which spends a lot of time examining high-drama conversations that go nowhere, arrives as hundreds of millions of people broadcast their innermost thoughts (or what they’d like us to believe are their innermost thoughts) on social media every day. But Kross argues that self-talk has long been a part of humanity’s basic architecture. “We are perpetually slipping away from the present into the parallel, nonlinear world of our minds,” he writes; our “default state” is a rich zone of remembrance, musing, projection. This is a quiet rejoinder to New Age wisdom—people are simply not designed to “live in the moment”—and the first part of “Chatter” grounds its argument in research about the brain. Kross reports that mental descants are part of the phonological loop, the element of working memory that transcribes “everything related to words that occurs around us in the present.” (In addition to an inner voice, there is also an inner ear.) The loop guides our attention; the voice, specifically, evaluates us “as we strive for goals,” popping up to assess our progress “like an appointment reminder appearing on your lock screen.” Using this voice, Kross writes, we can run mental simulations, rehearsing possible responses to a co-worker’s question or a partner’s complaint; we can also construct “meaningful narratives through autobiographical reasoning”—telling ourselves stories, as Didion put it, in order to live.
But, according to Kross, we just as often tell ourselves stories in order to be miserable. The inner voice, which is also an inward-turning voice, tends to linger over negative content. What’s more, it can call our attention to processes that run more smoothly in the dark, deconstructing what should be seamless movement into a broken jumble of steps. (By way of example, the book recounts, in excruciating detail, the mental block that ended the pitching career of Major League Baseball’s Rick Ankiel.) And, Kross writes, even as our chatter makes a micromanager of the brain, it gobbles up valuable bandwidth, dragooning neurons into the “dual task” of listening to it and completing their jobs. Short-term performance isn’t the only casualty; Kross posits that the inner voice (unsurprisingly) stokes our stress production, keeping our bodies in a state of emergency that can eventually take a toll on our health.
Kross is at his most engrossing when discussing the similarities between talking to ourselves and talking to others. The two types of conversation engage much of the same mental circuitry; this is due, in part, to the principle of “neural reuse,” the brain’s resourceful answer to size constraints imposed by the skull. The inner voice originates outside of us—with caretakers articulating values and beliefs, other early memories—and seeps in, little by little. The functions of external and internal expression are intertwined, too. In the late nineteen-eighties, Kross writes, the Belgian psychologist Bernard Rimé observed that, just as the inner voice pipes up in moments of stress, people feel compelled to talk to each other when they’re in extremis. “Chatter” wants to expand on this dynamic: the book offers a series of strategies for marshalling, inside our own heads, the power of an outside perspective. I began to read it almost as a guide to splitting oneself in two.
The rhetorical device of “illeism” is the habit of referring to oneself in the third person (Julius Caesar was an early adopter; ille means “he” in Latin). In Kross’s hands, this vainglorious tactic becomes something else: a coping mechanism, with a new label—“distanced self-talk.” “High usage of first-person-singular pronouns . . . is a reliable marker of negative emotion,” Kross writes. Better to adopt the vantage of a neutral observer: Katy is scrambling to meet her deadline, not me. Kross also notes that the bell tone of our names can re-center us. The TV personality Mr. Rogers, for instance, pumped himself up to write new scripts with the command “Get to it, Fred.” (Per Kross, experimental subjects who practice distanced self-talk are more likely to reframe a threat as a challenge.) Finally, Kross recommends “temporal distancing,” or imagining a future in which the agony lies behind you. (See: the motto of Dan Savage’s mental-health campaign for queer teenagers, “It Gets Better.”)
If these tidbits don’t sound particularly revelatory, “Chatter” moves on to more exciting terrain when it considers the role that actual other people play in self-talk. Recall Bernard Rimé, the scientist who noted how we yearn to unburden ourselves to loved ones. Rimé also argued that, as Kross writes, these conversations can cause harm, at least when conducted ad nauseam. Such a conclusion flies in the face of a robust tradition of thought. Beginning with Aristotle, an influential line of philosophers has proposed that strong feelings must out—that our griefs require purging through cathartic, often ritualized expression. In the eighteen-nineties, Freud employed the “hydraulic model” of emotion: psychic energies build pressure and seek release, like vapor from a teakettle. With “Chatter,” Kross stands athwart the teakettle, yelling, “Stop!” Not only does endless venting constitute a “social repellent,” he argues, but it drives people to fruitlessly sustain the very feelings that hurt them in the first place. The book introduces (as a sort of tempter or villain) a lesser-known sibling to the fight-or-flight response: “tend and befriend.” When we suffer emotional pain, Kross claims, we often seek out empathy from others, and our intense desire to soothe the psychological effects of our problems derails our search for solutions. “When our minds are bathed in chatter,” Kross writes, “we display a strong bias toward satisfying our emotional needs over our cognitive ones.”
This strikes me (somewhat painfully, like lightning) as an elegant and useful insight. By this point, though, the book’s argument has come almost fully unstuck from the idea of a phonological loop. “Chatter” ’s back half, which features a parade of mind hacks, is tailored to readers who would combat their own negativity, rather than to those who might be interested in what it means to possess an inner voice. One could wish for a differently ambitious work, but the recommendations seem helpful, if familiar, and—bonus—the book offers a beautiful theory for why nature can prove so replenishing. The outdoors, Kross writes, brims with boughs, flowers, and animals that delicately lure and guide our attention. We don’t have to concentrate in order to find ourselves lightly enthralled, and so our minds feel both refreshed and stimulated by these objects of “soft fascination.”
At the risk of mangling the research, it occurs to me that certain books also promote “soft fascination,” and that “Chatter,” with its friendly, crystal-clear tone, aims to be one of them. Popular-science writing has developed an arsenal of clichés to achieve a frictionless reading experience. These gestures, which crop up in “Chatter,” include section openings that begin with a date and a vivid anecdote (“In June 2018, the Spanish tennis superstar Rafael Nadal stepped onto the clay courts of the French Open”); self-deprecation; and a witty cross-section of examples, which attests not only to the suppleness of the theory but also to the author’s ability to “think outside the box.” (“Chatter,” for instance, invokes King Solomon, LeBron James, and Malala Yousafzai.) Kross is likable and practical on the page, and his self-help program seems less insidiously evil than most. That said, when “Chatter” defined awe as a brain state in which “the neural activity associated with self-immersion decreases,” I despaired.
There’s something deeply mysterious, even awesome, about our inner voice, the means by which we make ourselves aware of who we are and what we think. Kross has good ideas about how to manage and control this voice, and yet his book at times feels transactional where it could be curious. Reading it, I wondered not how to reconcile cognitive needs with emotional ones, but how my inner voice seemed to know what my emotional needs were before I did. After all, these strange narrators aren’t just our employees. They are, on some core level, our companions, beloved precisely because science—or even language—cannot touch them. They talk our lives into being. When we send them away, where do they go?