If you are reading this, think for a moment as to what you are doing……… are you sounding out the words in your head or did you pause, reflect and ask yourself “what exactly am I doing?”, either way you have been using your inner voice, your internal dialogue or have been experiencing what Ethan Kross calls Chatter.
Ethan is the Professor of Psychology and Management at the University of Michigan and author of a book called Chatter, the voice in our head and how to harness it.
On the one hand this might all seem a little strange, how many people would you ask what they have been talking to themselves about today, perhaps you wouldn’t because it’s too personal a question or maybe you don’t want to admit you do it all of the time. The good news is its perfectly normal and the vast majority of people talk to themselves. It’s worth adding however that not everyone has an internal voice, with some suggesting that this might be more likely for people with dyslexia.
Where does it come from?
Evolution would suggest that if we have this ability, it must serve a purpose. Mark Scott from the University of British Columbia has found evidence that a brain signal called “corollary discharge” plays an important role in our experiences of internal speech. Corollary discharge arises when the brain generates an internal copy of the sound of our voice in parallel to the external sound we hear. Its purpose is to prevent confusion between a self-caused sound or sensation for example, a dog growling noise inside our head and an externally-caused sound, for example a real dog growling who is about to bite. If both are the same, we run pretty fast, if not the brain will cancel the internal sound. This is the reason we can’t tickle ourselves; the brain sends a signal that we are going to tickle ourselves before we actually do, effectively cancelling the sensation.
Interestingly children don’t develop this skill until around 6 or 7 although its gradual and starts much earlier. This is the reason a young child will just say what they think, regardless of the consequences!
“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” Steve Jobs
Why it matters and what you can do?
One of the most powerful tools to help manage stress, wellbeing and self-esteem is your inner voice, and examinations provide a rich environment where without support all of these can bring you down. Heightened dialogue is not of course just experienced when studying or in the exam room, how was it possible that Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed penalties in the Euros. Maybe it was the result of too much chatter, telling themselves that they must score, they have to score, the country is relying on them?
“Non-judgment quiets the internal dialogue, and this opens once again the doorway to creativity.” Deepak Chopra
And this is where Ethan Kross offers a whole raft of advice. He talks about having the ability to step back from the Chatter by adopting a broader, calmer and more objective perspective. You also need to listen to what your saying, low self esteem for example can easily develop if you are continually criticising yourself, perhaps as a thoughtless parent might do, always finding fault no matter what.
Here are a few of the practical tools in the book.
- Use distanced self-talk – rather than saying “why can’t I do this”, use your name in the second person “why is it that Stuart can’t do this”. This results in reduced activation in brain networks associated with negative thoughts.
- Imagine advising a friend – this has a similar impact in that it helps you view the experience from a distance. “I know this is a tricky question but you’ve been in a similar situation before and you figured it out”. This is also an example of what Kross calls time travel, (temporal distancing) either going forward in time to look in the rear-view mirror at the problem, effectively leaving it behind or travelling back to a time when you were successful.
- Broaden your perspective – in this situation, compare what you’re worrying about with other adverse events or ask what other people would do in the same situation. A variation on the “what would Jesus do?” question.
- Reinterpreted your bodies chatter response – when you experience stress its likely your heart rate will increase and you will begin to sweat. Becoming aware of this can lead you to conclude that you are stressed which in fact makes the situation worse. Kross suggest you tell yourself that this is not bad news but the body doing what it has to in order to help you.
And finally, if you want to find out more, check out this video, Do you have an inner voice?