As Ethan Kross, an American experimental psychologist and neuroscientist, will cheerfully testify, the person who doesn’t sometimes find themselves listening to an unhelpful voice in their head probably doesn’t exist. Ten years ago, Kross found himself sitting up late at night with a baseball bat in his hand, waiting for an imaginary assailant he was convinced was about to break into his house – a figure conjured by his frantic mind after he received a threatening letter from a stranger who’d seen him on TV. Kross, whose area of research is the science of introspection, knew that he was overreacting; that he had fallen victim to what he calls “chatter”. But telling himself this did no good at all. At the peak of his anxiety, his negative thoughts running wildly on a loop, he found himself, somewhat comically, Googling “bodyguards for academics”.

Kross runs the wonderfully named Emotion and Self Control Lab at Michigan University, an institution he founded and where he has devoted the greater part of his career to studying the silent conversations people have with themselves: internal dialogues that powerfully influence how they live their lives. Why, he and his colleagues want to know, do some people benefit from turning inwards to understand their feelings, while others are apt to fall apart when they engage in precisely the same behaviour? Are there right and wrong ways to communicate with yourself, and if so, are there techniques that might usefully be employed by those with inner voices that are just a little too loud?

Down the years, Kross has found answers to some, if not all, of these questions, and now he has collected these findings in a new book – a manual he hopes will improve the lives of those who read it. “We’re not going to rid the world of anxiety and depression,” he says, of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. “This is not a happy pill, and negative emotions are good in small doses. But it is possible to turn down the temperature a bit when it’s running too high, and doing this can help all of us manage our experiences more effectively.”

According to Kross, who talks to me on Zoom from his home in a snowy Ann Arbor, there now exists a robust body of research to show that when we experience distress – something MRI scans suggest has a physical component as well as an emotional one – engaging in introspection can do “significantly” more harm than good. Our thoughts, he says, don’t save us from ourselves. Rather, they give rise to something insidious: the kind of negative cycles that turn the singular capacity of human beings for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing, with potentially grave consequences both for our mental and physical health (introspection of the wrong sort can even contribute to faster ageing).

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Does this mean that it’s not, after all, good to talk? That those in therapy should immediately cancel their next appointment? Not exactly. “Avoiding our emotions across the board is not a good thing,” he says. “But let’s think about distance instead. Some people equate this word with avoidance and repression. But I think of it as the ability to step back and reflect, to widen the lens, to get some perspective. We’re not avoiding something by doing this, we’re just not getting overwhelmed.”

Read the full article by clicking on the title link.

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