The Chatter in Our Minds

Research reveals how the effects of task-unrelated thoughts can be diminished.

Posted Jan 26, 2021

Douglas O'Brien, Wikipedia, Public Domain
Le Penseur in the Musée Rodin in Paris.
Source: Douglas O'Brien, Wikipedia, Public Domain

According to the new book Chatter, written by one of the leading experts in the field, Ethan Kross, we spend one-third to one-half of our waking life not living in the present. Our consciousness transports us to past events and imagined scenarios. This wandering of the conscious mind is so fundamental it has been called the “default state.” It occurs, for example, when the mind deviates from the task at hand, as in the case of task-irrelevant cognitions

Although these internal musings usually do not interfere with behavior, sometimes they lead to mental chatter precisely when we need it the least—under challenging and stressful conditions. Under these circumstances, there can be, for example, rumination about past events or worry about future events. 

A crucial insight in the book, based on mounting research, is that the instruments necessary for reducing this chatter are often hidden in plain sight. 

I very much like the book because it covers quite a bit of first-rate research, explains why we experience this mental chatter, and provides recommendations for how to reduce the negative effects of chatter and use these mental processes to our advantage.

The following stimulating ideas come from the book jacket:

“Tell a stranger that you talk to yourself, and you’re likely to get written off as eccentric. But the truth is that we all have a voice in our head. When we talk to ourselves, we often hope to tap into our inner coach but find our inner critic instead. When we’re facing a tough task, our inner coach can buoy us up: Focus—you can do this. But, just as often, our inner critic sinks us entirely: I’m going to fail. They’ll all laugh at me. What’s the use?

"In Chatter, acclaimed psychologist Ethan Kross explores the silent conversations we have with ourselves... He warns that giving in to negative and disorienting self-talk—what he calls ‘chatter’—can tank our health, sink our moods, strain our social connections, and cause us to fold under pressure... But the good news is that we’re already equipped with the tools we need to make our inner voice work in our favor."

Kross compellingly argues that the tools needed to combat the negative effects of this mental chatter, which so often occupies our consciousness, are often hidden in plain sight. These are everyday solutions. Nothing fancy, really. For example, he mentions that the tools can be found in the words we use to think about ourselves, in the technologies we embrace (and those we avoid), and in the diaries we keep in our drawers. In addition, the tools can be found in the cultures we create in our schools and workplaces, and in the conversations we have with our loved ones. One must understand why there is mental chatter. After learning this, one can learn ways that might help control it and yield positive outcomes.


Kross, E. (2021). Chatter: The voice in our head, why it matters, and how to harness it. New York: Crown.