Why was Ethan Kross’ 2022 book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (Crown, 2022) a runaway best seller? What made readers gravitate to a scientific exploration of cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience? And why does managing chatter even matter?

Kross, a professor of psychology and director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, describes chatter as that relentless stream of self-talk that shapes our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Chatter can be especially impactful during times of change and transition.

Understanding chatter and how to harness it is a key consideration when we are working to make and sustain lifestyle changes that support our best health.

The Inner Monologue and the Chatterbox Brain

At the heart of Kross’ research is the idea of the inner monologue, that continuous dialogue that unfolds in our minds. While the inner monologue can serve as a valuable tool for problem-solving and self-reflection, it can also spiral into rumination, worry, and self-criticism. Think of a time when you experienced this type of chatter. How helpful was it?

According to Kross, the brain's default mode network (DMN) governs the inner monologue, that ebb and flow of chatter. The DMN can become overactive, hijacking our attention, and triggering what he calls the chatterbox brain. When we worry incessantly about the future or dwell on regrets from the past, it is the chatterbox brain that fosters those repetitive, draining and discouraging thought patterns. 

Beyond its immediate cognitive effects, chatter exerts a profound influence on our emotional well-being and interpersonal relationships. Heightened levels of stress, poor quality sleep, anxiety, and depression are all impacts of excessive chatter. Moreover, chatter can also impair our ability to empathize with others, leading to unintended interpersonal conflicts and misunderstandings.

Managing Chatter

As part of his research, Kross tested several strategies for taming chatter including what he calls distanced self-talk. Say you're worried about meeting a crucial project deadline. This leads to excessive rumination. Using distanced self-talk, you say to yourself, "Lisa, you have colleagues to help you with this project. And you planned your schedule, so you have plenty of time." Using your own name along with the second person "you" in your inner monologue helps to put distance between yourself and the issues that trouble you. The benefit? You gain perspective and better control over your thoughts and emotions and lessen their impact.

Kross feels that social support is also critical in mitigating unproductive chatter. Excessive rumination, for example, is typically something we do in isolation. By reaching out to others, we have a potent antidote to the internalized distress unchecked chatter creates.

Making Chatter Work for You

When we harness chatter, it can support strong interpersonal communication and relationships, and enhance performance in many areas, from athletics to public speaking. A constructive inner dialogue can repurpose chatter to optimize our focus, confidence, and resilience in high-pressure situations.

Think about the last time you worked to make a lifestyle change in support of your best health. When you found the process straightforward, what did your inner monologue sound like? Encouraging, celebratory or even gratefully surprised? And when you encountered barriers to your progress, what did your inner monologue sound like then? Discouraging, dejected or even highly self-critical? The differences between an inner monologue that supports us versus one that does not can be significant.

By understanding the mechanisms underlying chatter and implementing Kross’ proactive strategies for managing it, we can cultivate greater resilience, clarity, and well-being in our lives. Navigating chatter is a journey of self-discovery and growth, harnessing the power of our inner voice to shape a more compassionate, fulfilled existence.