Chatter by Ethan Kross: Book Overview

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Chatter" by Ethan Kross. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Ethan Kross’s Chatter about? What is the key message to take away from the book?

In his book Chatter, neuroscientist and experimental psychologist Ethan Kross explores the private conversations we have with ourselves and how they impact our well-being and life outcomes. Further, he lays out practical strategies to help you silence your inner critic and rewire your mind for more positivity.

Keep reading for a brief overview of Ethan Kross’s book The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.

The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It

Right now, you’re not only reading these words. You’re also engaging in self-talk: your thoughts taking the form of words, all within your mind. Self-talk is the voice in your mind that says, “Interesting!” when you read something compelling. It’s the encouraging voice that tells you “Nailed it!” after you rock an interview, as well as the inner cynic that grumbles, “You’re a failure” after you bomb a first date.

In Chatter, Ethan Kross highlights this last type of voice—negative self-talk, which he believes interferes with your happiness, health, and success. He argues that you can improve your life by quieting negative self-talk. 

Chatter is the first book by Kross, a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist. He founded a lab at the University of Michigan that studies people’s self-talk. He and his colleagues design experiments to answer the following questions: Why do we engage in self-talk? How can we prevent negative self-talk from jeopardizing our well-being? Chatter explores these same questions.

In this guide, we’ll present Kross’s insights on self-talk and share his research-based strategies for managing its negative form. In Part 1, we’ll provide some background: what self-talk is, why you engage in it, and how both your biology and your upbringing shape your internal voice. In Part 2, we’ll contrast how negative and positive self-talk impact your life. Finally, in Part 3, we’ll explore five of Kross’s strategies for managing your negative self-talk. Throughout this guide, we’ll compare Kross’s ideas and strategies to those of other experts on self-talk. Furthermore, we’ll provide additional actionable steps for quieting your negative self-talk.

Part 1: Background on Self-Talk

Is self-talk just another word for our thoughts? Not quite: Kross claims that specifically, self-talk is thoughts that take the form of silent words you “hear” in your mind. Here are several examples of self-talk:

  • After you say something awkward to your date, you mentally chastise yourself. Your internal voice moans, “Now they probably think I’m a loser.
  • Before you share your idea in a meeting, you imagine what you’ll say.
  • After you meet someone, you mentally repeat their name so you don’t forget it.

Why Do We Engage in Self-Talk?

According to Kross, self-talk must be evolutionarily beneficial—otherwise, this habit wouldn’t have persisted into modern times. He surmises that our ancestors who engaged in self-talk were more likely to survive and therefore pass this habit down to future generations.

The Neuroscience of Self-Talk

What happens in your brain when you’re engaging in self-talk? Kross shares three facts about the neuroscience of having an internal voice.

Fact 1: You Can Multitask While Engaging in Self-Talk

According to Kross, you have a system in your brain called the phonological loop that allows you to engage in self-talk while doing other things. Your phonological loop has two jobs it can do simultaneously: 1) It temporarily stores verbal information, such as something you’ve just heard or read, and 2) it allows you to silently think in the form of words.

Fact 2: Our Self-Talk Is Lightning-Fast

Second, Kross cites a study revealing that our self-talk happens remarkably fast. Our internal voice “speaks” at a rate close to four thousand words per minute. Reading four thousand words aloud would take at least 15 minutes.

Fact 3: Everyone Engages in Self-Talk

Third, Kross elaborates that everyone engages in self-talk to some degree, even people who don’t express themselves out loud. For instance, deaf signers report having an internal voice.

Social and Cultural Forces That Shape Self-Talk

Although our capacity for self-talk is hard-wired into our brains, it’s also shaped by the world outside our heads. Kross argues that our upbringing and culture influence our self-talk. We internalize the voices of those around us, especially those of our parents. Their voices usually reflect larger cultural beliefs. 

For instance, imagine that your culture has the following social norm: Refrain from displaying intense emotions around strangers. While growing up, your parents repeatedly reminded you of this norm. Over time, you internalized their vocal reminders. Now, their words are part of your self-talk, reminding you to be emotionally reserved in public.

Part 2: Positive vs. Negative Self-Talk

Kross contends that our self-talk is extremely important: It influences our happiness, health, and success. In this section, we’ll contrast how positive and negative self-talk impact your life. We’ll begin with positive self-talk.

How Positive Self-Talk Improves Your Life

Role 1: Supporting You With Your Goals

Kross explains that when your self-talk is positive, it’s an internal mentor that improves your life by supporting you with your goals. Your internal mentor does this in three ways: 

  • It motivates you by offering encouragement.
  • It prompts you to assess your progress by reflecting on your accomplishments so far and comparing them to your goals. 
  • It helps you plan for the future by directing you to engage in behaviors that increase your chances of accomplishing your goals.
Role 2: Helping You Construct Your Identity

Second, Kross claims that your internal mentor helps you form your identity, which makes life easier. Think of your internal mentor as a silent voiceover narrating your life. This voiceover tells a somewhat oversimplified story, highlighting certain aspects of your past to construct a cohesive story about who you are. This story helps you recognize what you want and need in life, and it grounds you in your values so you can be resilient in the face of challenges. 

For example, imagine you’re on a journey toward becoming less of a perfectionist, and your effort to record a musical album is forcing you to confront your perfectionist tendencies. Any time you slip into your old ways, your internal mentor steers you towards success by connecting your past, present, and future identities into a cohesive narrative:

  • It compares the present to the past: “You’re being a perfectionist again by trying to perfect each song. In the past, this prevented you from completing songs.”
  • It imagines a better future: “On future recordings, be less of a perfectionist. Remind yourself that ‘good enough is good enough!’ It’s better to have imperfect but completed songs than no songs.”

How Negative Self-Talk Harms You

On the other hand, Kross claims that sometimes, your self-talk is negative—an internal cynic who overwhelms and discourages you. 

Kross claims that, in contrast to your internal mentor, your internal cynic chastises you, fixates on negative memories, and worries excessively about negative scenarios. Let’s reimagine what it would be like to work on your musical album in the company of your internal cynic:

  • It chastises you by saying, “This song is impossible to play. I’m a failure.”
  • It fixates on negative memories associated with music-making, such as the time you forgot your own lyrics during a performance. Your internal cynic says, “That night proves that you’re not meant to be a musician.”
  • It worries excessively about negative scenarios and fails to provide solutions for course correcting. It says, “You’ll probably never finish your album.”

(Shortform: While Kross identifies our internal cynic’s voice as a harmful influence, other experts emphasize that the real problem is our failure to question this voice. Why do people tend to believe their internal cynic? First, some people think that chastising self-talk keeps them humble. For instance, you might not question your internal mentor’s claim that you’re a musical failure because you think this claim prevents you from becoming obnoxiously confident. Second, some people view their negative self-talk as deserved punishment. For instance, you may think you deserve to revisit negative memories or worry about the future as punishment for procrastinating on your album. Later, we’ll explore strategies for questioning your internal cynic.)

Let’s explore how over time, this internal cynic can harm your success, happiness, and health. We’ve organized its negative impacts into five effects.

Effect 1: Increasingly Negative Feelings

First, According to Kross, your negative self-talk prompts a vicious cycle in your brain that makes you feel worse. Let’s break down the steps in this cycle:

Step 1: Negative self-talk stresses you out or worsens your existing stress.

Step 2: Your brain activates a threat response. Your hypothalamus, a region in your brain, interprets your stress as a threat. To prepare your body to fight this perceived threat, the hypothalamus activates a threat response similar to the one you experience when facing a physical threat. This response sends hormones into your bloodstream that speed up your heartbeat, raise your blood pressure, and increase your energy levels.

Step 3: Your brain’s threat response makes you feel worse, which amplifies your negative self-talk. Your internal cynic reflects your increasingly negative feelings by becoming increasingly cynical.

Effect 2: Reduced Access to Your Skills  

Negative self-talk not only makes you feel worse—it also makes you perform worse. Kross explains that when your internal cynic plagues your mind, you lose access to some of your skills. Specifically, you can lose access to automatic skills stored in your muscle memory (such as driving a car, dancing, or reading). 

To understand why negative self-talk has this effect, we have to understand your brain’s executive functions. These are the jobs your brain performs to guide you through your day, such as shifting your attention to a new task and holding information temporarily in your mind. Kross explains that when you’re immersed in negative self-talk, your brain—which has limited capacity—lacks enough energy to fully perform its executive functions. 

Effect 3: Social Isolation 

Third, Kross argues that your negative self-talk harms your social relationships and makes you feel isolated. He describes two ways in which this happens:

1) You behave aggressively. Kross cites research revealing that people who repeatedly verbalize their negative self-talk are more likely to act aggressively. Negative self-talk multiplies our frustration, and we unfairly direct it toward others.

2) You frustrate and repel others. When you repeatedly share your negative self-talk with others (whether verbally or in writing), people may grow frustrated with your negativity and start avoiding you. 

Effect 4: Poor Mental Health

Kress contends that negative self-talk also degrades your long-term mental health. He explains that people who deal with depression and anxiety often have an overactive internal cynic. 

Effect 5: Poor Physical Health

Lastly, Kross provides evidence that negative self-talk also harms your physical health. As previously noted, when you can’t switch off your internal cynic, your hypothalamus activates a threat response, quickening your heartbeat and releasing stress hormones. If your negative self-talk persists for too long, this physical threat response does as well. This causes problems related to chronic stress, such as heart problems and insomnia.

Part 3: How to Manage Your Negative Self-Talk

Kross argues that, fortunately, we can prevent our negative self-talk from interfering with our success, happiness, and health. He claims that we can’t get rid of our internal cynic completely, but we can quiet it and therefore reduce its power over us. In this section, we’ll share five of Kross’s research-based strategies for quieting your negative self-talk.

Strategy 1: Pursue Amazement

According to Kross, you can quiet your internal cynic by directing your attention away from your negative self-talk and toward something amazing. Kross explains that amazing experiences can quiet your inner cynic because they reduce brain activity associated with self-immersion: getting lost in your thoughts, including negative self-talk. 

Here are four of Kross’s tips for seeking out amazing experiences:

1) Notice everyday, incredible moments. Enjoy the moment when your child uses a new word they’ve learned, or revel in the miraculous taste of your morning coffee.

2) Enjoy some art. Read a work of fiction, see a play, or attend a live performance.

3) Witness something mind-blowing. Have a conversation with someone who survived a life-changing disaster or read a book about the neuroscience of octopi.

4) Spend time near nature. Go on a walk, visit an aquarium, or gaze at the night sky.

Strategy 2: Seek Out Actionable Empathy

When we’re struggling with something, many of us seek out others for emotional support. But Kross warns that seeking support from other people can sometimes make you feel worse and increase your negative self-talk. 

Why does this happen? Kross explains that support-seeking often results in what psychologists call co-rumination: when the person supporting you asks too many questions about your challenge. Excessive questioning makes you re-experience the pain of the challenge and resurfaces related, painful memories. This is because brains process thoughts by making associations: When you recall one negative memory, your brain resurfaces other, related negative memories. When you re-experience all these memories, your internal cynic grows louder, intensifying your negative emotions.

According to Kross, you can limit co-rumination and quiet your internal cynic by seeking out actionable empathy: when someone offers you empathy and provides solutions to your challenge. They show empathy by validating the difficulty of your situation and the emotions it’s giving you. Then, instead of engaging in co-rumination by asking you too many reflective questions about your situation, they instead offer advice. This advice prevents you from revisiting painful memories and directs your attention toward a more hopeful future.

Strategy 3: Adopt a New Perspective

Seeking out actionable empathy works if you have access to others—but what if you’re by yourself and you need relief from your internal cynic? Kross claims that you can quiet your internal cynic by adopting a new perspective. This allows you to get outside of your head, bringing you clarity and a break from your body’s threat response. In this section, we’ll share four of Kross’s tips for quieting your internal cynic by adopting a new perspective.

Tip 1: Think of Your Problem as a Project

First, according to Kross, studies reveal that you can reduce your brain’s threat response by thinking of your problem as a project instead of a threat. When you approach your problem as a project that will develop your skills, you call upon your internal mentor, whose encouragement can drown out your internal cynic. 

For instance, imagine you’re an organizer for housing justice and you’re feeling discouraged by your city’s lack of affordable housing. Instead of framing this as a threat to your coalition’s goals, think of it as a project that’ll push you and your coalition to develop new skills and tactics.

Tip 2: Compare Your Present to the Past

Kross claims that you can also quiet your internal cynic by comparing your present situation to other challenges you’ve endured in the past. Remembering these past successes offers hope that you’re capable of persisting through your current challenge. These feelings of hope can transform your internal cynic into an internal mentor.

For example, imagine you’re having trouble setting boundaries with a family member and your internal cynic is chastising you for being a pushover. To counteract this negativity, remind yourself of times in the past when you’ve effectively set boundaries with other people.

Tip 3: Imagine How You’ll Feel in the Future

If comparing your current situation to the past doesn’t provide relief, look to the future instead. Kross claims that you can quiet your negative self-talk by imagining a positive future. Consider how you’ll feel about your current situation in one month, a year, and 10 years. Contextualizing your present in your future can trigger the hopeful realization that your current situation is temporary. As previously noted, hopefulness hushes your internal cynic. 

Tip 4: Avoid Using the “I” Pronoun in Your Self-Talk

A final way to adopt a new perspective is to shift the pronouns your internal voice uses. Kross claims that the pronouns you use in your self-talk affect the power of your internal cynic. People who address themselves using the first-person pronoun “I” experience more negative emotions than people who address themselves using different pronouns. Pronouns other than “I,” such as “he,” “she,” “they,” and “you,” give you distance from your current situation, preventing you from losing yourself in negative emotions that fuel your negative self-talk. When you use these other pronouns, your brain’s threat response is less activated.

Strategy 4: Increase Your Sense of Control

According to Kross, you can also quiet your internal cynic by increasing your sense of control. Any time your internal cynic takes over, you feel overwhelmed by its voice and lose your sense of control. Strategies that replenish your sense of control give you hope that you can steer your future toward a positive outcome. 

One way to regain control, Kross claims, is to organize your time and your physical space. For example, organize your time by making a schedule for your day or week. You can organize your space on a small scale (such as sorting your desktop files into folders) or on a large scale (such as cleaning your home).

Strategy 5: Engage in Rituals

Finally, according to Kross, rituals—from wearing a lucky hat to uttering a prayer—quiet our internal cynic. Kross explains that rituals combine the benefits of multiple other strategies that also reduce negative self-talk (some of which we discussed in earlier sections). Let’s explore three reasons why rituals are effective at quieting your internal cynic.

Reason 1: Rituals Often Involve Our Communities

Kross claims that rituals that involve other people, such as religious ceremonies, quiet our negative self-talk. This is because other people can reduce feelings of isolation and help us cope with negative emotions.

Reason 2: Rituals Direct Our Attention Elsewhere

Kross also argues that rituals require you to channel your brain power away from negative self-talk and toward the steps in the ritual behavior. For instance, imagine you’re one half of a comedy duo. You and your partner engage in the following ritual before every performance: You drink a shot of soju, do a secret handshake, then look into each other’s eyes and exclaim, “You’re the funniest person I know!”  This ritual distracts you from your internal cynic’s worries that you’ll freeze on stage and fail to deliver a funny routine.

Reason 3: Rituals Give You a Sense of Control

Finally, according to Kross, rituals give you a sense of control. As we discussed earlier, having a sense of control reduces your internal cynic’s power over you. Kross elaborates that rituals create a sense of control because they’re a type of placebo. A placebo is something that you believe will help you, even if there’s nothing specifically about the placebo itself that helps you. Believing in a placebo reassures you that the future will be better, which quiets your internal cynic’s pessimistic worries. Furthermore, when you believe a placebo will make things better, your brain’s threat response decreases.

For instance, imagine that you’re in the process of searching for a new job, and you develop the ritual of listening to your favorite song before each interview. Even if there’s nothing about the song itself that reduces your nerves, your belief that it reduces your nerves gives you a sense of control. This sense of control quiets your internal cynic before and during your interviews.

Chatter by Ethan Kross: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Ethan Kross's "Chatter" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Chatter summary:

  • How negative self-talk interferes with your happiness, health, and success
  • Research-based strategies for managing negative self-talk
  • Four actionable tips for quieting your internal cynic

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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