Close your eyes for a few moments. You’ll soon be aware of thoughts streaming through your mind — thoughts reminding you of the jobs you haven’t done, anxious thoughts about the future, fragments of memories, images of people you know, or snatches of songs you’ve recently heard.
Now try to stop this stream of thought. See if you can experience a clear, empty mind, with no impressions or associations running through it.
It’s unlikely that you will be able to do this. Involuntary ‘thought chatter’ seems to be an affliction of human beings. It’s there whenever our minds aren’t occupied with external things — when we’re lying in bed trying to get to sleep, waiting at the bus stop or at the doctor’s office. It’s there when we do jobs or tasks which aren’t interesting enough for us to give our whole attention to. For example, a cashier may spend her day daydreaming about her next free weekend. A boring conversation may lead a man to wonder what he'll watch on TV that night.
Thought-chatter fades away when our attention does become absorbed in external things, such as engaging in challenging jobs or hobbies, or in distractions and entertainment, like watching TV or reading a novel. But thought-chatter always starts up again the moment our attention is unoccupied.
Thought-chatter is such a normal part of our experience that most of us take it completely for granted. But why should we have a kind of voice in our heads, a noise and image-producing machine that constantly recalls our experience, replaying bits of information we’ve absorbed and imagining scenarios before they’ve occurred? Why should our minds jump randomly from one association to the next? Doesn’t this mean that we’re all a bit crazy?
Short periods of thought-chatter can sometimes seem pleasurable, particularly the daydreaming type. It’s pleasant to lie down on a beach or on a sofa, and create mental scenarios of you satisfying your desires and ambitions, or to relive pleasant past events or look forward to future ones.
Some psychologists have also suggested that daydreaming may have a purpose as a kind of "social rehearsal," allowing us to prepare for situations and events. The daydreaming state can also be a kind of "cauldron of creativity" which gives rise to insights and ideas, such as when Einstein daydreamed the Theory of Relativity while working as a clerk in a patent office. Composers such as Brahms and Debussy purposely used daydreaming to help them compose.
But in the main, involuntary thought-chatter has more negative than positive effects. After a while, it makes us feel uncomfortable and gives rise to an impulse to immerse our attention externally in order to escape it. (I’ve suggested before — in my book Back to Sanity — that this is why television is so popular, because it offers a simple and effective way of immersing our attention externally, away from our thought-chatter.)
Part of the reason for this is simply that thought-chatter creates a constant disturbance inside us. Our mind is filled with the chaos of swirling thoughts that we have little or no control over. We feel unsettled and uneasy, in the same way that we do when there's a loud disturbance outside us. It creates what the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls psychic entropy — a lack of control over our own minds.
Thought-chatter also creates a barrier between us and our experience. It stops us from experiencing the world in an immediate way. It creates a fog of abstraction in our minds, which dilutes and obscures our experience — everything we see, hear, smell, feel, and touch — so that reality becomes a shadow. It may even create a sense of unreality, when the memories, images, and scenarios that run through our mind appear more real than our actual experience.
Perhaps the biggest problem with thought-chatter though is that it’s often tinged with negativity. Thoughts about the future are tinged with worry and anxiety, thoughts about the past are tinged with regret or bitterness and thoughts about your present life situation are tinged with dissatisfaction.
Why Are We Afflicted with Thought-Chatter?
Where does thought-chatter come from? Perhaps it can be seen as a byproduct of the ability to self-reflect — the ability to talk to ourselves inside our heads, to hold an inner dialogue with ourselves, and to deliberate and interpret our experience. This self-reflection should be — and often is — very beneficial to us. These are the powers of reason which supposedly make us superior to animals, able to organise our lives, evaluate situations, make plans and decisions, and so on.
Unfortunately, this self-reflective ability seems to sometimes malfunction. Like a computer that has developed a will of its own, the mechanism has somehow slipped out of our control and produces an endless chaotic series of impressions and images.
Perhaps thought-chatter is the result of the interaction of this self-reflective ability combining with our faculties of memory, imagination, and anticipation. When self-reflection becomes automatic and random, it interacts with the faculty of memory and replays scenes from our past; it interacts with the faculty of imagination and creates imaginary realities for us to inhabit, and it interacts with the faculty of anticipation — the ability to plan and envisage the future — and allows us to create scenarios of future events. It should really be seen as a psychological aberration, a kind of quirk of the mind.
It seems clear that our psychological health, and our lives in general, would be enhanced if we were less afflicted with thought-chatter. In fact, this is one of the long term effects of meditation. Regular meditation practice has the effect of slowing down or quietening thought-chatter. Seasoned meditators may experience extended periods of complete mental emptiness during meditation, and in the long term, their minds will become permanently quieter (although it’s unlikely that they will be able to stop their thought-chatter altogether).
However, just as importantly, meditation or mindfulness practice enables us to become less identified by our thought-chatter. It helps us to stand back from our thoughts, and just watch them flow by. Thoughts are fuelled by the attention we give to them; when we become immersed in them, their momentum increases. So this detachment itself has the effect of slowing down thought-chatter. It also means that we’re less vulnerable to the emotional overspill of negative thoughts. We’re able to say to ourselves, "Oh well, there goes another negative thought — I don’t have to pay attention to it."
In that sense, you could see meditation as a way of helping us to become more sane.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. He is the author of The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening.