Attending musical competitions when I was in middle and high school was a challenge of the mind. I played piano and trumpet, and it was piano performance that especially vexed me. I was used to playing my trumpet before an audience every day in band class, but only my piano teacher and my family ever heard me play the piano. When I sat down at a big, imposing, unfamiliar instrument for a competition, judges and audience members generally sitting uncomfortably in a cold classroom in some random school building, my mind started to whirl.
Where and when should I place each finger?! I would try to consciously control the musical piece I was playing—something I would never do at home. This always resulted in abject failure. A piece that I could ordinarily glide through became a chore in which wrong notes abounded, and I was in constant danger of losing the thread of the entire thing, despite thinking exponentially harder about it than usual.
This is not how to play the piano. To play the piano, you must practice daily, over and over, and then at the performance let your muscle memory and musical sense carry you away.
The point of this story is that thinking—so often lauded as being the highest activity a human being can engage in—can be detrimental. In his 2021 nonfiction book Chatter, Ethan Kross diagnoses what harmful internal voices are and enumerates and explains more than 25 (!) ways to subdue and prevent this unhelpful chatter in our minds.
In the following passage, Kross explains why chatter is so harmful to us and our brains:
“Your labor-intensive executive functions need every neuron they can get, but a negative inner voice hogs our neural capacity. Verbal rumination concentrates our attention narrowly on the source of our emotional distress, thus stealing neurons that could better serve us. In effect, we jam our executive functions up by attending to a ‘dual task’—the task of doing whatever it is we want to do and the task of listening to our pained inner voice. Neurologically, that’s how chatter divides and blurs our attention.”
I used to think that that internal chattering voice was me; now I know that “me” is bigger and broader than that. The more control we can exert over our inner chatter, the more we can take what’s useful from it and banish the rest, freeing up our minds to perform more optimally, and with less stress and anxiety.
One of the best things about Chatter is that Kross not only explains what chatter is, but also provides so many different ways to take control over it. He calls these different methods tools, and all together they are a toolbox. He makes this wise statement about the toolbox:
“It’s critical that you build your own toolbox. That is your personal puzzle, and it’s why subduing chatter can frequently be so challenging, even when we know the research.”
Ah. As with most everything in life, we must put in the work. If a person wants to subdue their chatter, they must not only know which tools can do the job; they must also decide which tools work best for them, and then put those specific tools to work.
I like this approach, which recognizes that psychological tools are not one-size-fits-all. We each must figure out what works for us as individuals and do that.
Have you had any problems with chatter? Have you discovered any tools that work for you? (Note: I will enumerate a couple of chatter-reducing tools in upcoming blog posts, but to access them all, you will have to read the book yourself!)