Full PreFrontal

Ep. 154: Ethan Kross, PhD - Mental Chatter

June 23, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 154
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 154: Ethan Kross, PhD - Mental Chatter
Show Notes Transcript

In his short story, The Girl Next Door, essayist and comedian, David Sedaris writes, “In the coming days, I ran the conversation over and over in my mind, thinking of all the fierce and sensible things I should have said.” To some extent, each of us are trapped in our own mind’s echo chamber like David Sedaris describes and if kept unchecked, listening to the unfiltered stream of thoughts can feel like we’re losing control. The neuroscience of self-talk can provide valuable insights to shift our perspective to step outside our heads and step into the world and manage life.

On this episode, the world's leading expert on controlling the conscious mind, award-winning professor at the University of Michigan and the Ross School of Business, and the director of the Emotion and Self Control Laboratory, Ethan Kross, PhD, discusses what exactly is mental chatter and how we can reshape the voice inside of us to gain a sense of control over our mind and our life.

About Ethan Kross, PhD
Ethan Kross, PhD, is one of the world's leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor at the University of Michigan and the Ross School of Business, he is the director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory. He has participated in policy discussion at the White House and has been interviewed on CBS Evening News, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper Full Circle, and NPR's Morning Edition. His pioneering research has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Science. He completed his BA at the University of Pennsylvania and his PhD at Columbia University.

Book: Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters and How to Harness It

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About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

Support the show (https://mailchi.mp/7c848462e96f/full-prefrontal-sign-up)

Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to Full PreFrontal: Exposing the mysteries of executive function. This podcast is fueled by three goals. One to explain what executive function is, was the role of prefrontal cortex in self actualization. And we do that by translating research and finding the overlap and intersectionality between neuroscience psychology, rehabilitation, anthropology, and many, many other fields. Number two, we hope to help connect the plight of the current self with the needs of the future self and bridge the gap between the two. And the third goal is to really help people create a playbook for personal success. And that personal success can come from mastering executive function. And one such big barrier to self actualization is mental chatter. And I'm going to tell you a quick story. You know, David Sedaris is my favorite go to comedian and essayist. And in one of his stories, titled the girl next door, he moves into an apartment complex and real bad neighborhood to save money, and the rent is only $75 a month. But with that, you can imagine a lot of unstable environments and people who are from unstable environments. And he's a neighbor to a woman who works as a waitress with a seven, with a third grader, a nine year old girl who is quite destructive and becomes friends with David. And then he finally reaches to his mother and says, Listen, your daughter is destroying all the things that in my house, she comes in when I'm not there. And she she's just very, very unmanageable. So the mom barks back at him and says, you know, nobody asked you to take care of my daughter, you know, like, just leave us alone. And then she throws him out. And so he is in the hallway, stunned, without having any response. And then he says, For next two weeks, I was thinking and plotting what would have been the best way to respond to her, but the moment was gone. But what was left behind was this mental chatter. And I think this is the plight of all of us, right? Don't you remember the time when you didn't come back with a good, you know, repertoire or something back attacking other person or responding to their attack? Well, we have Dr. Ethan Kross with us who is one, one of the world's leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. He is an award winning professor at the University of Michigan, and the Ross School of Business. And he is the director of the emotion and self control laboratory. He has participated in policy discussion at the White House and has been interviewed on CBS Evening News, good morning, America, Anderson Cooper's full circle, and NPR, his Morning Edition. his pioneering research has been featured in New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and many, many places. But the most important thing, thank God he did it for us, is this amazing book called chatter. So welcome to the podcast. How are you?

Ethan Kross: Thanks for having me. I love love that Sedaris story wasn't aware of it. It totally captures the phenomenon of chatter really well. So I may, I may have to use that in my own presentation. So thank you.

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, absolutely. You before we jump into your topic and your expertise, because this podcast talks about executive function, I'm always curious about my guests ability, adaptive flexibility, skills, goal assessment, intentional focus, and that goal directed persistence. So as a child as a young learner, how were you? How aware were you as a student? How strategic you were, how persistent you were towards goals, and how is your level of mental chatter?

Ethan Kross: Well, I think I was I've always for as long as I can remember. I've been introspective and I've been aware of what I was feeling and, and I would reflect on how I was thinking in different situations. I wasn't necessarily that goal directed throughout elementary middle school. When I when I remember the end of middle school, we had an award ceremony and I watched all of my friends you know, get awards for math and science and different things. And I was sitting with my parents and I ended up getting an award for for gym class, you know, doing well in gym and that was it and that definitely was a spike on my personal timeline I made a decision there to commit to a goal of studying well and trying to achieve. And I did in high school and I became extremely goal directed in high school and very studious and developed really good study habits and refine them. So so that goal direction didn't really set in until after I had, I've experienced that that a bit of challenge, but so that that characterize is where I stood on the gold directness, front in terms of chatter, I was always really good at managing chatter throughout my childhood and adolescence, I didn't experience a ton of it. And when I did, I was able to just work through it pretty effectively. Then I had kids later on, and I started getting, you know, more challenging sources of chatter that I struggled with more so I think I've absolutely experienced it. And since that and continue at times, but but fortunately use a lot of the science based tools that exist to help with it, and I can personally attest to the fact that they do.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, what was so lovely to read, is you mentioned that your dad had Bhagavad Gita on your coffee table. And so sounds like he was very open to different ways of looking at life and as well as Bhagavad Gita from my me being a student of Bhagavad Gita, there's incredible focus on self reflection and introspection and kind of really tempering your emotional responses to life. Yeah. So go ahead, go ahead. Tell us about that experience. 

Ethan Kross: Oh, from a very young age, my dad was consumed with with Eastern philosophy. And you know, he's a really interesting character because he, he wasn't formally educated in the sense that he needed a couple of years in college and then dropped out and never really held down a job for too long moved from one sales job to another and yet, he read voraciously. Hit, you know, Bhagavad Gita, Hindu philosophy, Buddhist philosophy. He just couldn't get enough of those contemplated traditions, and he practice meditation. And he would talk to me about those ideas from a very young age. And so that really left a mark on me. I learned to meditate when I was five years old. Did it on and off after that I don't regularly meditate very much now but, but was constantly thinking about these ideas. And although, in a certain sense, growing up, I didn't think I become a psychologist. I didn't even know what a psychologist or neuroscientists did in the early days. It did seem like in a certain sense, it was preordained that that would happen, given some of these early conversations that we had. So so it was a fun, fun way to grow up.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, that's great. And that brings me to as we set the stage for this conversation. Let's begin with what you're most well known for the concept of mental chatter, and actually even self control. But you're right that the thoughts racing through the mind is like a horrible carnival ride, one cannot get off and description. So tell us what it what one should understand. Other than the obvious nature of the words, mental chatter? How would you describe it scientifically? And is this tell us about the helpfulness of it, as well as the harmfulness? 

Ethan Kross: Well, when we're talking about, we're fundamentally talking about self talk, or what is often colloquially colloquially referred to as our inner voice. And what scientists mean when they use those terms is that we're talking about our ability to use language silently. So we often were very familiar with the concept of talking to other people using words. But as you know, you know very well from your own work, we often talk to ourselves in words to, we think in words. Now, that's not to say that thoughts equal words, we can think or think to ourselves in images as well. But a lot of our private mental life, a lot of our private mental experiences, our deal deal with words. Now, this ability to silently use language. This is an amazing tool that you wouldn't want to live life without because self talk allows us to do a number of remarkable things. Just to give you a few concrete examples. If I were to ask you to repeat in your head. I love Atlanta. I love Atlanta. I love Atlanta. I know you live there. So, you know, just just repeat, repeat that phrase in your head silently, you'd be using your inner voice. Our inner voice is part of what we call our verbal working memory system. This is a mental system that allows us to keep information active in our heads and which is absolutely essential to our ability to successfully navigate the world, you know, try go into a grocery store. And and, and without this verbal memory system working memory system, it'd be really hard for you to remember what you went there to buy. So I often will get to the grocery store. So and think to myself, What do I have to get? eggs, cheese sticks, yogurt, you repeat that that's your, that's your working memory. So that's one thing that our inner voice lets us do. But our inner voice lets us do other things as well like, simulate and plan for the future. So when I'm preparing for a presentation, I'll often rehearse in my head, what I'm going to say, that's your inner voice. And your inner voice also lets you come up with stories to explain our experiences. So when bad things happen, like we experience loss, or we're rejected, or we get angry, we often try to turn our attention inward to make sense of those experiences. And we use language to help us do that. So that's all your inner voice, lots of great things come with it. There is a dark side to this inner voice though, which is what chatter is all about. And what what chatter is is the following. We experience something negative in our lives. And we we reflexively try to use language to make sense of that experience to work through it. But we don't just come up with a clear explanation that allows us to move on instead, we end up ruminating and worrying and catastrophizing, we get stuck in these negative thought loops, that take this remarkable capacity, language, and turn it turns it into a curse rather than a blessing. Because we end up suffering, we end up having difficulty focusing on what we're trying to do, because it can consume our executive resources. And I'm sure we'll talk more about that. We know that chatter can create friction in our relationships and also impact our physical health negatively. So it's a huge problem. And and it's one that I've devoted my career towards trying to address and, and the upshot, the good news is that we've learned that there are a number two or three dozen ScienceBase tools that people can use to manage their chatter. And so so there really is a positive conclusion to the story. And, and that's really the full terrain.

Sucheta Kamath: And one thing, I must say, what I loved about your, you know, there were, there would have been so many ways, you could have told the story of your research. And I love that you framed it from chatter perspective. Number one, I think, as you mentioned, the universality of that experience, when I talk about executive function, it's sometimes lost on people, because they may not know the terms, complex terms, such as executive function, or executive functioning, but chatter they like yes, I know exactly what that is. And the second part, I think, I really love Love is this idea that it has such potency, that we not only are using this to guide our actions, but it is a mental tape recorder that can actually allow us to replay something in case in order to manage the load of information. So can you slice this up into many parts. The first part I would love to talk about is his role of attention and its relationship, or other relationship between attention and chatter or self directed speech. You know, I have quoted Susan Sontag often on this podcast. And she says that the best gift you can give to others is your attention, which captures captures everything that you talk about mental chatter which disallows. Right. So what is the role of that regulating attention? Which is kind of tuning out the chatter or picking out the right parts of that mentally self directed speech? What's the relationship? How would you explain that? And how do people study it?

Ethan Kross: You know, there are two ways that attention factors into to chatter at the at the broadest level. One way does so is when we experienced chatter when we're worrying and ruminating. That leads us to really hone narrower attention on what the source of our troubles are, or is. So we zoom in, in a very tunnel vision like manner, and that can be problematic when it comes to performing complex routines or, or habit. So, you know, in the book, I tell the story of a pitcher, who really threw a while pitch started experiencing some chatter, oh my god, I just threw a wild pitch. And what ended up happening is his chatter ended up leading his pitch and wind up, which he had spend years and years refining, right putting all of these individual steps together to make this wonderful, complex symphony of movements like a throwing throwing the ball to home and baseball chatter caused that complex habit to unravel by by focusing his attention on the individual components of the habit. So what makes a complex habit effective is that you don't have to think about the individual elements, right? Like what a pitcher, a professional pitcher goes on the mound, he doesn't have to think about how high he should lift his knee, or how far back he should, you know, pull his arm before releasing the ball, or how tightly he should squeeze the ball. He just does those things automatically without thinking, and it works. And practice allows the pitcher to be able to do that. If you start having a pitcher scrutinize the individual components of that habit. What that leads is the whole thing to blow up. So if you start thinking, Oh, my God, am I squeezing the ball tight not tight enough? And am I releasing it properly, that leads to something we call paralysis by analysis, it's all about attention to we're hyper focusing the attention on the individual components. And it can make it can make performing under stress really, really hard to do. So that's one way that chatter and attention are related. The other way that they're related, is chatter can consume our attentional resources. So when we're experiencing chatter when we're worrying or ruminating about something, it's like there's nothing else exists in the world. And even if we're aware that there are other things we need to do, we have trouble focusing on them. The real world example I like to give people is to think about a time when they tried to read a few pages in a book, when they were consumed with a worrisome thought. Most people report having this experience and when they do, they read several pages only to get to the end. And realize they don't know what they've just read, they can't remember anything because they haven't actually encoded or processed the material. That's because their attention was focused on the chatter, not on what they were actually trying to do their goal of reading the book, you could take this situation, apply it not to just performance in a reading context, but a relational context. Many people have the experience when for example, they're consumed with something sitting down and listening to a partner or a child, like tell them about their day. They listen, but 10 minutes later, they don't remember anything that was said. That's how chatter can really influence occupier attention in ways that can have negative consequences.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, when I was doing rehabilitation, or not when, but my work with rehabilitation, cognitive retraining, is about identifying the internal, we used to call them internal and external distractions. So the internal distractions can be of three kinds, you know, the, the thinking about your thinking. So if you're doing actual problem solving, you need some thinking, applying principles of, you know, problem solving, second is ruminating. And third is fast forwarding living in fantasy, you know, you're either doing that mental time travel going forward, or backward, and then you're actually consumed. So what you're saying is that attention management really requires chatter management. And if you don't have that understanding how interference or how much interference the chatter can cause you might be victim of your own mental chatter. Because it can keep you very busy, right? 

Ethan Kross: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, you've said well, and, you know, as it as, as evidence as a subjective evidence of how it can keep you busy. Many people report that chatter doesn't just lead them to feel bad and cause problems in their relationships. It also is really tiring. It's effortful to spend so much time worrying about something or ruminating about something because it is occupying our attention in ways that can be really fatiguing. And, in fact, some of the tools that are useful for managing chatter, the way in which they work is by helping give us a break and restoring some of our attention that chatter is consuming. So yeah, you've really, you've really captured it very well.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, other thought, I remember when I was 16, I was sitting, there used to be a little little concrete bench outside our apartment, and this is what this was in India and I used to sit there in the evening and one day it occurred to me that I am stuck with my own thoughts. Like I cannot have novel thoughts. All the thoughts. I know, I'm familiar with them. And I was so blown away by that awareness. Because then I realized, oh my god, I am stuck with me. That was my first awareness that my there's no novelty in thinking because I am familiar with the way I think and that Kind of fueled a lot of my mission of kind of exploring some new ways of looking at the world. Because what I looked into when I looked inside, I just saw same thing over and over again. So there is some healthy way of harboring a relationship or essential chatter, but there can be some unhealthy chatter, right, some disorders actually OCD and odd Oppositional Defiant Disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder, or even ADHD. What do we know about the qualitative differences between different types of chatters? 

Ethan Kross: Well, I think you know, I, this is you know, a matter of semantics and people define words differently. That you know, that science right, we have these we are always very clear and how we define a word, I, I equate chatter with negativity. So to me, there are healthy and harmful ways of talking to ourselves healthy versus the harmful self talk or self directed speech. And chatter is the term I use to capture the harmful variant of that. And so once you're in chatter territory, from my perspective, it's time to take efforts to to minimize it and redirect the conversation. Now, to be clear, just not any kind of negative self talk is synonymous with chatter. So let me let me describe what I mean by that. I'm a proponent of the idea that negative emotions are functional, these they are beneficial to us in small doses. So when I experience a ping of anxiety when I think about an upcoming presentation, really, really useful emotional response, because it it mobilizes me to begin preparing for that event that I have coming up, okay, well, now it's time to do some work. If I experience a little bit of anger, when someone you know transgresses me in some way, that's a good thing, I'm prepared for how to engage with this person. So I think we, we evolved the capacity to experience negative emotions for a reason. What makes negative emotions harmful is when they're prolonged, when we don't just experience a little burst of negativity, and then move on with our lives. But rather, when we get stuck, re experiences negative emotions over and over and over again. And that's what chatter is all about. It's getting stuck in those negative thought loops, where you're experiencing something negative. And then you keep replaying that experience over and over in your head, using words to help you do that, which in turn, keeps the negative experience alive in ways that can be really destructive. So, so really, chatter is a specific kind of self talk that involves getting stuck in those negative thought loops.

Sucheta Kamath: And I really, thank you for drawing the distinction there, because I think we often look inwards, and you write about this, and we're looking for inner coach to guide through this problem solving. But we may meet inner critic, the critic metropass. So how do you study this in your lab? How do you invoke responses from people to understand the inner workings? Can you share a few experiments with us? 

Ethan Kross: Well, there are lots and lots of different ways that we try to tackle this. And they range from bringing participants into the lab and having, you know, inducing negative emotions and any number of ways to, you know, with I should clarify, we induce negative emotions in the lab, in the hopes of figuring out how people can better manage their emotions in life. So not we don't do it just to be made. But we might bring people in, tell them they have to perform a speech in front of a panel of evaluators, and we don't give people much time to prepare. That's one powerful way of inducing stress. We might you know, in other studies, we've asked people to relive really painful romantic rejections, if you just been dumped by someone in your life, replay that experience in your head. And what we do is we we often...

Sucheta Kamath: I find that amazing.

Ethan Kross: That was a fun one. We direct people to then think about their experiences in different ways. So one condition we, if people are randomly assigned to one group, we might ask them to just think as they normally would about some of these experiences. In another expand another strategy condition, we might test any number of different tools that we think might be useful for helping people manage their negative emotions. So those are the kinds of things we do in the lab will off will also sometimes do these studies while we're scanning using brain imaging technology to monitor how their brains, different networks in their brains are. Are correlating with different ways of thinking about these experiences. We'll do studies using people's smartphones, where we text message them throughout the day, over several days to index how much they're ruminating about their experiences over time. We do this stuff with kids with adults clinical population. So we really have a very broad toolbox of methods that we can use to study chatter, and importantly, how it can be controlled.

Sucheta Kamath: I think that there's so many fascinating parts of the way you even tap into that. But one of the things that you help us make the leap is the how that the nature of the rent, you know, if you external, your internal negative talk comes out as a rant, then it acts as a social repellent. And and can you share some of those findings where people who are ruminating, they actually occupied the social spaces by keep externalizing ruminating and can put people off including in middle school, children tend to talk more about their negative experiences can have less friends. And that's so powerful to know that. 

Ethan Kross: Yeah, well, when we experienced chatter, we're often highly motivated to talk about it with other people. And so we find other people to share with streaming through our heads. The problem is that because chatter is so cyclical, and ongoing, what often happens is you find someone to talk to, and then you talk to them, and you keep on talking about the experience over and over and over again. And there's often a limit as to how much other people can listen to, without engaging in some reciprocal form of communication. Like there's a, there's a chemistry, there's a dance that usually takes place in interpersonal communications, you asked me a couple of questions about my life, I share some stuff, I then asked you questions. And so the conversations end up being a little bit more one sided when when it's about chatter, which can be off putting to other people. There's also another issue, which is chatter can make it harder for people to solve problems, because it's consuming their attention. And so that often makes it harder for them to notice problems in the interpersonal contexts and fix them. So because they're so consumed with their own problems, their own self, it becomes harder to be a good conversation partner that can have social ramifications of the sort that I talked about in the book that are quite significant.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's so interesting, how had that experience with girlfriends who have been dumped, and they not only tell me the story, we go out there telling other people the same story I have heard. So they almost like, it becomes like a poor social judgment issue, you know, like, you have to kind of understand the shared knowledge, she knows it. So maybe I'll tell a different story. But no, they're obsessed, and then you call them, they're still obsessed, and then you call them again, after a month, they're still obsessed. I in fact, had a this is a really crazy story. But I had a friend for close to 10 years, she talked about this same guy. And he had by then he had married, he had two children. And she was still talking about him. And what it did is actually it kind of my frequency of calls to her kind of disappeared, you know, and slowly our relationship kind of just came to a halt because she had no other agenda, but to talk about how he should or shouldn't really, it's not fair that he's having a better life.

Ethan Kross: I mean, this is a conundrum is really saddening so much. And it's a real conundrum. Because these other people, some of the times are our friends or family members, they desperately want help. And and often I think there's a lack of awareness that in their attempts to get help, they're not getting what they need. And as a result, they're their social networks are fraying. So you know, you know, I, I think of there's there's a chapter in my book, where I talk about all the negative ramifications of chatter. And at one point, the working title was the the quote unquote, big problem that didn't end up becoming the title of the chapter. But but I do think of chatter is one of the big problems we face as a species. Because if you look at the data, if you look at the science, it impacts us in three domains of life that I think are among the among the domains that we care most about. It makes it really hard to think and perform well at work. And you know, on the on the playing field, right, so thinking and performance chatter impacts that it creates friction on our social relationships, right? social relationships are so tremendously important to our lives. chatter undermines those. And then it impacts our physical health by taking a stress response. That is something we we all experience at times in which is arguably a useful response. Right? It's a good thing to be able to quickly respond to fight or flee when we see a threat in our environment. experiencing stress on its own isn't bad. What makes us harmful is when it becomes chronic, prolonged And that's what chatter does, because we experience something stressful. And then we re experience it in our head over and over again by thinking about it over and over. So that's how chatter, you know, predicts things like cardiovascular disease, and certain forms of cancer, and so forth. And so thinking and performance, social relationships, physical health, you know, these are the domains of life that makes life worth living and chatter negatively impacts them all, which is why I think it is such an important issue that we need to be talking about and figuring out how to address.

Sucheta Kamath: I love, love that. And I think particularly the way you have laid up the book, because it really takes us to the whole fullness of that there's ways to manage it. And before we go there, I had a question about, I recently heard an evolutionary biologist talk about this and tell me if this makes sense to you. But he was talking about that, you know, our ancestors, when they came into, they discovered some bushes and they tasted it, and they had diarrhea, they made sure that everybody know, knew not to go to those bushes. So So first of all, they had to remind themselves, don't eat those berries, don't eat it, those berries. So that was kind of original of this self directed talk. And then eventually, part of their narrative to other people, is to tell the same story of so we tend to focus on our negative experiences far more, because they play a protective role. But is that something you understand? How did this origin? What is the origin story of chatter from evolutionary perspective?

Ethan Kross: Well, you know, I think it's certainly the case and there's overwhelming evidence that we are more sensitive to negative stuff than positive. Danny Kahneman won the note the first psychologist to win a Nobel Prize. I believe the first psychologist, for the idea of loss aversion were more sensitive to losses than gains. Another way of saying that is bad is stronger than good. Another famous psychologist Roy Baumeister, popularized that phrase, so that that is fairly well established now as as to whether the chatter began in because you know, we had to rehearse the negative stuff in our heads. I'm not sure. I don't know how we would actually garner evidence to support that that sounds to me like a theory. It's an idea. I don't know how you would test that. You know, I think, I think it's likely that we've been talking to ourselves for as long as we've been talking to other people. And we've been using words to do many things, right? If you think of language as a tool, it makes sense to me that we have we rely on this tool to do lots of things. But there are contexts in which it jams up, it backfires. How that began, who was the first person to experience that? I don't know. And it would be very hard to actually figure it out. But it's certainly a fun, fun thought thought puzzle to to reflect on.

Sucheta Kamath: And ponder over. And so. So there are two networks or three actually, maybe or tell me what do you think. But we have default mode network, where we, we kind of hang back and let our mind run loose. And during that time, a lot of this rumination or chatter can occur. But that has a very great self referencing nature to it. We think about self i right. And so now we have a lot of mindfulness practices that's showing that the one of the ways to get off that AI centric thinking is to kind of really bring your attention to the moment. So tell us the good news, that mental chatter is totally manageable. And you the right, oh my god, there's so many ways you show us that this is totally manageable. So let's begin with why you feel so hopeful. And you're such a good psychologist. That's why you feel hopeful. But what part makes you so believe so strongly, that it's manageable? And then give us the give us the tips? How can we do it successfully? 

Ethan Kross: Well, the reason I think it's there's a lot you can do is because we know that there are so many different tools that have been shown to be useful with you know, well designed experiments with control conditions that illustrate how these different tools can help people when they're experiencing chat over different things in their lives. And, you know, one important theme that I try to convey in the book and in my research is that there are no single magic pills. There's no one tool that helps all people in all situations from all cultures. What we know is that there were many different tools in the book I talked about 26 different tools. And men you know people use caution combinations of tools. And they may use different combinations in different, different situations. So I think shifting the discourse out there in the culture from just looking for single tools to looking inside at combinations of tools would be really helpful. So but but the reason why I'm hopeful as I know, there are things that are out there that can help. I've personally benefited from these I've seen subjects, participants in studies benefit from them. So I think there is a lot of room to be optimistic in terms of what the tools are just to give listeners a framework. I think there are three categories of tools broadly defined, you can, there are things you could do on your own ways of shifting the way you're thinking about your circumstances that can help you manage chatter, then there are what we might call people tools, ways of interacting with other people from your social network in very specific ways that can be helpful. And then there are environmental tools, ways of interacting with your physical spaces that can be helpful for managing our internal conversations as well. I'll give you an example from from each of those categories, we can't obviously go into all of those here. Now, although that would be fun to do.

Sucheta Kamath: And that's why people need to read your book. 

Ethan Kross: They're all in the book. And yeah, get information from my website. So what can you do on your own? Well, one type of tool involves distancing, we know that people are much better at giving advice to other people than taking your own advice. And so one simple strategy that I often rely on a lot is to try to coach myself through my problems work through a problem, you know, talk to myself, like I would talk to one of my best friends, what would I say to them, and actually use language to help you do this, use your own name. When you're trying to coach yourself through a problem. It's really astounding, if you step back and think about this, like, say a friend was coming to you, like think for a moment about what what thoughts might stream through your head of panic and self doubt before big presentation. And people think all sorts of things that are out of touch with that, Oh, my God, I'm never going to be able to do is I'm going to suck. This is terrible. Now, would you ever say that to your best friend who came to you for advice about, hey, I've got this great presentation coming up. What do you think, oh, you suck. You're terrible. You're terrible. You know, we never say that we give them advice. We try to build them up. What we've learned is that distance self talk, using your name to coach yourself through a problem, it automatically shifts our perspective, it gets us to relate to ourselves, like we're relating to another person. And that can be really helpful when it comes to chatter. So that's something you can do on your own. In terms of other people. When it comes to other people and seeking out their chatter support, the the thing to keep in mind is that we often think that venting is really helpful. So the way to get over our chatter is just to express how we're feeling. Research shows that that's not the case. So venting our emotions to someone else can make us feel really close and connected to another individual. Like, it's good to know that there's someone there, who cares enough about me to listen to my problems. But if all we do is vent, we don't do anything to shift the way we're thinking about our circumstances, to find solutions in ways that are ultimately needed to help us suppress our chatter. So the best kinds of conversations are ones in which you find someone who does let you talk a little bit about your emotions, it is important to express what we're feeling to a certain degree. But at a certain point in the conversation, they help you refocus. They help you broaden your perspective, in ways that give you insight to new ways of thinking about your circumstances that can be useful. So I like to call these people in my life. They're my chatter advisors. And I have a few of them. And they're people I go to whenever I'm experiencing a bit of chatter, and they really helpful for doing precisely what I just described, the important take home there, when it comes to the people Is there gonna be lots of people in your life, who you're close to who you love, who may not be very adept at broadening your perspective, right, all they'll do is be there to listen and hear you and co ruminate with you. And research shows that we should we should be careful about those kinds of conversations because they can exert a negative toll. So that's one kind of person tool or people tool. The final...

Sucheta Kamath: So is that why you say as a your tribute, you say to Laura, my chatter antidote?

Ethan Kross: Yes, she is one of my chatter advisors for sure along with being my wife.

Sucheta Kamath: I love that.

Ethan Kross: Yes. And then the final category environmental tools. You know, I find these fascinating, so many different things we could do in our environment, to help us control ourselves from the outside in. One example would be organizing our spaces cleaning, organizing. When people experienced chatter, they often feel like they don't have control of them. have their thoughts, their thoughts are controlling that. And what we've learned is people can compensate for this experience of a lack of control. By exerting control around them by organizing this is why so many people, when they're stressed out reflexively turn to cleaning and organizing. Researchers, there's been studies that show that that actually serves a function, it helps boost our sense of self efficacy in ways that could be really helpful. So that's a that's an example of that last bucket. Now, those are three tools, three different categories. Each one of those categories of tools has many, many other ones, I by no means want to suggest that these are the only three things you could do. Again, I talked about 26 different things. And so the upshot here is that there is a vast repertoire of things we can do to manage or chatter that science has revealed. And I think the real challenge that listeners face, who are motivated to try to manage their chatter, is to really start doing some self experimenting to figure out well, what are the unique combinations of tools that work best for me, given my own unique circumstances, you know, there are four or five tools that I consistently rely on in my life, and they really do serve me well. But the four or five things that I rely on are very different from what my wife or best friend relies on. So I really do think it's important to find the what are the cocktails that are unique to every person. And again, the the, the, the good news is that science provides us with a guide for AI for beginning to do that self experimentation.

Sucheta Kamath: I love all, I'm so glad that you first of all, organizing these three buckets, because you can remember them better, because there are lots and lots of strategies. But the research in the environmental modification blew me away, I was familiar with a lot of those pieces, but the way you put them together, that was really, really helpful, simple things even like the you know, recovery of patients who, who are facing windows, whose window looks at a brick wall versus that one that looks at the lawn, you know, or the garden just had dramatic effects, you know, having a plant or even in nursing homes, when, you know, elderly were given an opportunity to water plants, their self agency improves, and then their well being improves. But my favorite is if you don't mind talking as we end is the sense of our in a role of our that plays in in reducing the chatter this feeling small. And to me, that is such an important step towards transcendence. You know, mental chatter to me is keeping the voice of AI alive and make yourself grander than you are. And so the antidote to that is becoming smaller in presence of something magnanimous? And do you have something that you're either inspired by? Or how do you practice that?

Ethan Kross: Yeah, so I mean, fantastic research on on awe. Aw is an emotion we experience when we're in the presence of something vast that we have trouble explaining. So last time, I experienced that recently, when I watched the Mars rover land on Mars, just all inspiring to see, oh, yeah, you know, this spaceship land on another planet. So we know that when people experience or they experience a shrinking of the self, they feel smaller in comparison to this magnificent grand thing that they're contemplating. And with them feeling smaller, so do their worries. So it can be it can be a truly useful environmental tool. I practice it by going for walks in the local Arboretum whenever I can, which are filled with beautiful 100 year old trees and amazing views that are just remarkable to consider it truly awe inspiring, I also get off for my kids, I will often just try to be very mindful in being present with them. And seeing what they can do and accomplish. I'm amazed like at one point, they couldn't talk or do anything really just flop around. And now they're, you know, performing and doing these remarkable things. And that is that can be really all inspiring. And I see that in some of my students as well like seeing them grow and flourish can be inspiring, too. So there are a lot of odd triggers. And and this brings me to maybe a final point I want to emphasize You know, a lot so 26 different things in the book, I talk about tools. I think some of these tools will be familiar to people in the sense that they may have stumbled on them in their lives, and have figured out that doing something like going for a walk in nature makes them feel better, but not really understood why other tools, I think, probably weren't on the radar at all. And still others. They may have been doing the reverse what they thought they were doing something they thought was helpful, like venting, which research suggests is actually harmful. I think the value of the science and seeing all these tools in one place. Is it allows us to be a lot become a lot more deliberate, of how we integrate these tools in our lives. So they don't have to wait to stumble on their usage to haphazardly find something that helps us, or through a trial and error process, you know, like, you know, weed through all the alternatives. Instead, we can see, here's a list of things we can do. Let me try doing them. Let me try doing these two or three things together, and then looking to see what effect they have. And so so, you know, my invitation is for listeners to begin that process. And my hope is that it's useful.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, it's, it's a brilliant book, your work is absolutely magnificent. And I cannot tell you how much deep gratitude I feel. I'm in awe of your work, and what you have brought to us. So I'm very grateful. I guess having your book next to me is a daily art for me very kindly. So as we well, it's absolutely true. So I'm not exaggerating a single word. So as we end, what inspires you? Do you have any recommendations of books that have made meaning and by the way, you were a we had a guest on our podcast, Dr. Kristen Neff, who studies you know, self compassion. And your book is one of the books that she recommended. So I'm so grateful that you are on on here with us. But what would you share with us that you find extremely informative, and, you know, brought you joy? 

Ethan Kross: Yeah, very kind of Kristen. I'm a fan of her of her work to recommend chatter. You know, in terms of a particularly meaningful book. There's one that instantly comes to mind. And, you know, not because of the coincidence in the title, but it's Victor Frankel's Man's Search for Meaning, which is a book that I truly I read every year, I sign it in my undergraduate and graduate seminars. It's a book I was first exposed to in college. And it was really, it had made such an impact on me it was basically it's a story of a an individual, Viktor Frankl who lost everything in World War Two, the Holocaust was tortured, emotionally and physically, and managed to survive and what he later in recounting what allowed him to survive was really his ability to find meaning. He quotes nature, the philosopher as saying, He who has a why to live for can deal with almost any with any how, and ever. So it's such a powerful concept. And it's particularly powerful for me, because I believe I agree with this idea that meaning is so incredibly important. But what's always struck me as so remarkably interesting is that it can be hard to find meaning out of our experiences, and often in our attempts to do so we can get stuck. And chatter is what gets us stuck. And so. So I'd recommend that book to anyone who's interested in this space, I think it's a can't go wrong title that is a pleasure to read and is deeply insightful.

Sucheta Kamath: That's beautiful. And just a quick story about that book. I gave a book my kids are young adults now. There they are, have. They live in New York City now, but they both upon their graduation, that was my gift to them, each of them and I just had a chance to come back for Mother's Day. After visiting, I was so pleased to see on their bookshelves, they have been very happy. It truly is like a life guide. You know, as you talk about, it can help you build that inner coach and calm down the inner critic. Thank you so much for being with us. And being so generous with your time and your brilliant work and and wishing you the very best and can wait to see what next. Do you have some interesting things in the pipeline? What are you working?

Ethan Kross: Well, we have lots and lots of research going on all at all times. Our lab is thriving, we're really excited. We have a very big, it's actually a project in in, in Georgia, right outside of Atlanta. We're working with a school district there, where we're we've developed a curriculum that teaches students about the science of self control. And we're going to be seeing what impact that curriculum has on students lives over time. So that's something that that we're really excited about. And yeah, and lots of things along those lines.

Sucheta Kamath: Fantastic. Well, thank you for tuning in everyone. If you love what you hear, please share it. And once again here with our guest, Dr. Ethan cross. Thank you for tuning in and have a fabulous day and keep coming back.