Why We Talk to Ourselves
The scientists found that inner experiences consistently dwarf outer ones. What people are thinking about turns out to be a better predictor of their happiness than what they are actually doing. You’re in a situation in which you should be happy (spending time with friends, say, or celebrating an accomplishment), but a ruminative thought swallows your mind. Your mood is defined not by what you did but by what you thought about.
So is our inner voice an asset or a liability? Inner voice is far from a curse of our evolution. It allows us to function in the world, achieve goals, create, connect, and define who we are in wonderful ways. But when it morphs into chatter, it is often so overwhelming that it can cause us to lose sight of this and perhaps even wish we didn’t have an inner voice at all.
Chatter is what happens when we zoom in close on something, inflaming our emotions to the exclusion of all the alternative ways of thinking about the issue that might cool us down. In other words, we lose perspective. This dramatically narrowed view of one’s situation magnifies adversity and allows the negative side of the inner voice to play.
Of course, narrowing your attention isn’t a problem in and of itself. On the contrary, it’s often essential to help us address challenging situations and the feelings that arise from them. But when we find ourselves stuck on our problems and lose the ability to flexibly zoom out—to gain perspective—that’s when our inner voice turns into rumination.
The good news is our brains evolved not just to zoom in when we confront difficulties but also to zoom out, though the latter is much more challenging during times of stress. The mind is flexible, if we know how to bend it. If you have a fever, you can take something to bring it down. Likewise, our mind has a psychological immune system: We can use our thoughts to change our thoughts—by adding distance. The big question, then, is this….
Distancing As the Chatter Strikes
In 1970, Aaron Beck, one of the founders of cognitive therapy and an influential figure in mental health, proposed that teaching patients how to objectively scrutinize their thoughts, a process he called “distancing”.
This approach differed from the meditative practice of mindfulness in that the goal wasn’t to stand apart and watch one’s thoughts drift by without engaging with them. The point was to engage, but to do so from a distanced perspective, which isn’t the same thing as an emotionally avoidant one.
This dampening quality of distancing could, however, have an unintended consequence. Distancing shortened both negative and positive experiences. In other words, if you got a promotion at work and stepped back to remind yourself that status and money don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things and that we all die in the end anyway, your well-deserved joy would decrease.
Although you might think that competing against world-class athletes and making sure you don’t pull a muscle are the most essential parts of professional tennis, that’s not true for Nadal, one of the greatest players in history. “What I battle hardest to do in a tennis match,” he says, “is to quiet the voices in my head.” And his quirky customs on the court, which many of his fans find amusing but strange, provide him with a perfectly reasonable method of doing so.
By always placing his ID faceup, carefully arranging his water bottles so they are perfectly aligned in front of his bench, and making sure that his hair is just right before a serve, Nadal is engaging in a process called compensatory control; he’s creating order in his physical environment to provide him with the order he seeks internally. As he puts it, “It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.”
Just like Nadal we can simulate a sense of order in the world—and by extension in our own minds—by organizing our surroundings and making sure that our physical environments conform to a particular, controllable structure. The desire to have control over oneself is a strong human drive. Believing that we have the ability to control our fate influences whether we try to achieve goals, how much effort we exert to do so, and how long we persist when we encounter challenges.
Placebos Also Known As The Mind Magic
The model Heidi Klum carries a tiny bag filled with her baby teeth when she flies and clutches it during turbulence. Michael Jordan wore his college shorts beneath his Chicago Bulls uniform during every game. Of late the healing practice of crystals has become big business—a billion-dollar business, in fact. In a broad sense, placebos are very common. We would be mistaken to write off people who cherish charmed objects as misguided. Scientifically speaking, it’s quite rational.
Study after study demonstrates that simply believing a placebo will make us feel better actually does. Though the amount of relief that placebos provide varies notably across diseases and patients, some people are more naturally sensitive to placebos than others—in some cases it can be substantial.
In one experiment, scientists injected a promising new chemical treatment into the brains of patients with advanced Parkinson’s symptoms. The hope was that doing so would stimulate dopamine production, impoverished levels of which are a root cause of the disease. After the surgeries were performed, the scientists monitored the patients’ symptoms over the next two years. At first glance, the findings were encouraging. Participants who received the injection experienced a significant decline in their symptoms. But there was one problem. Participants in a “sham surgery” group who also had their brains drilled into but didn’t have the injection—a placebo, in this context—experienced the same decline in symptoms. They thought they had received the special treatment, so their brains and bodies responded as if they had. The message from this and many other studies is clear: Our minds are sometimes as powerful as modern medicine.
So, do placebos help the inner voice?
Studies suggest participants who thought they received a painkiller reported experiencing substantially less distress when they relived their rejection. What’s more, their brain data told a similar story; they displayed significantly less activity in their brain’s social pain circuitry compared with people who knew they had inhaled a saline solution. So it turned out placebos can directly help people with chatter. A spray with nothing chemically meaningful in it could work like a painkiller for the inner voice. It was both strange and exciting.
Clearly, there are limits to the effects of placebos.
For a placebo to work, we have to be deceived into believing that we’re consuming a substance or engaging in a behavior that has actual healing properties. Outside of research, where people who participate in studies are typically informed about the possibility of receiving a placebo, such lying would be unethical. So we’re left in a bind: We can’t lie to ourselves about the medicine we take, which means that in the case of placebos we have access to a tool we can’t take advantage of.