Our heads are noisy places, and a lot of the time that's a good thing. Daydreaming is a sign of intelligence, according to science, and can make us more creative. And reflecting on your problems and noodling over solutions is one of the best ways to move forward in life (even if it's not the more pleasant way to spend your time).
But sometimes all that chatter in our heads gets destructive. We beat ourselves up for our slightest failing, talk ourselves out of sensible risks we should actually take, or get stuck in a loop of worry or shame. That kind of unhealthy mental noise is one of the subjects of University of Michigan neuroscientist Ethan Kross's new book, Chatter.
In it, he runs through the evolutionary reason our heads are so noisy, what happens in our brain when we ruminate, and techniques for grappling back control of your own inner voice. He recently shared one in the course of an interview with science magazine Nautilus.
What would Batman do?
Chatter happens, Kross explains, when we get stuck in a mental rut, retreading the same worries over and over again without reaching any useful conclusion or consolation. Breaking out of that rut requires putting some emotional distance between you and whatever is troubling you. It's hard to figure out how to solve a problem when you're super upset over it.
Language can help, Kross says. Research shows that a simple technique called "distanced self-talk" enables people to shift their perspective and see problems more objectively. All you need to do is stop your inner voice from saying "I, I, I" and use some other word or pronoun instead.
"We know that it's a lot easier for people to give advice to others than it is to take that advice ourselves. And what we've learned is that language provides us with a tool for coaching ourselves through our problems like we were talking to another person. It involves using your name and other non-first person pronouns, like 'you' or 'he' or 'she,'" Kross explains. "This tool gives you some mental space, some psychological distance from our problems, which helps you give yourself more constructive advice for how to deal with a situation."
What exact language you choose doesn't seem to matter much. One study even showed that kids who were asked how Batman would solve a problem reasoned more constructively about it. As long as you're encouraging yourself to think through your problems as a concerned outsider might, it doesn't matter if you think, "Hey, Wonder Woman, calm down and think this through," or just, "Joe, what would your mentor say?"
As long as you avoid "I," you should be able to turn down the temperature on your emotions and more easily find an off ramp from troublesome thoughts.
A bonus tip to quiet your mind
Distanced self-talk is one effective way to kill the chatter in your head, but it's not the only one. The complete article offers a few more suggestions, including one we've covered many times on Inc.com here before -- time outdoors.
Nature "gives our attention the ability to recharge ... by subtly drawing our attention to things that are interesting to us, but don't necessarily take a whole lot of bandwidth for us to make sense of," Kross explains.
So next time you find yourself stuck in an unproductive mental loop, head for your nearest green space to spend a few minutes thinking through how someone else might tackle your issues. Hopefully, you'll return to the office with a far quieter mind.