Language is a gift and a curse. Without it, humans would not have become the dominant species on this planet. Language allows communication for coordinated action (as in hunting and war) and is the basis for a wide range of symbolic thought.

But there is a dark side to language. Let me back up and explain. There are two aspects to language: along with language expressed through external behaviors like speech, sign-language or writing, language also exists as an internal monologue. We use it privately to think. Although thoughts or cognitions are a broader category than verbal (that is, language-based) thought, a large part of thought is certainly language based. Here is where the bad creeps in: the internal monologue is nearly impossible to turn off.

Those parts of our brain involved in language are always on during wakefulness, leading to an ongoing stream of internal thought. An analogy is to our senses, which also can’t be turned off during wakefulness. In fact, for many individuals internal thought is even harder to control than is sensation. For example, although we can’t turn off our hearing, we can decrease the sound stimuli reaching our ears to minimize the sensory experience. And although we can’t turn off our vision, by closing our eyes we can very much decrease the visual stimuli reaching our eyes. But thoughts … they seem to go on incessantly. Where’s the off switch? Alas, there is none.

But what’s wrong with all this thinking?

The bad part of incessant thought is that so much of it is negative. Many, many people spend inordinate amounts of time ruminating about past and current failings, and worrying about future threats. And even for those individuals who don’t ruminate depressively or worry anxiously, sometimes their neutral-seeming thoughts are so repetitive and obsessive that they become emotionally, mentally and physically draining.

Sometimes you just wish your mind would just “shut up!”

So, are there ways of stopping our brains’ ongoing chatter? Not really, but sort of.

For deeply experienced practitioners of meditation, the internal chatter indeed can be made to stop. These individuals have learned to reach a state of no thought, no chatter, no striving or desire. The moment experienced in such a state is complete and timeless. There is no destination to travel to. Eternity is now. Oneness is here. Throughout the ages and different cultural and religious traditions, practitioners of meditative practices often devote lifetimes to reach such transcendental moments.

But what relief is there for the rest of us mere mortals? Is there any hope to, if not stop the internal chatter, at least mitigate it?

Helpful techniques: Defocusing and Defusion

Actually, anyone can take steps to free themselves from the worst effects of this incessant chatter. The techniques can be said to fall into the categories of defocusing and defusion. Think of defocusing as paying less attention to your thoughts and think of defusion as taking your thoughts less seriously.

First, let me highlight one aspect of internal thought that makes a frontal attack on it counterproductive. If you tell yourself to stop your thinking, what you’re doing is thinking, just on a different topic. Rather than thinking about your “crazy schedule tomorrow,” you’re now thinking how you “should just stop thinking.” Thinking about not thinking is still thinking, after all. Haha. The joke’s on us!

Defocusing simply means to focus on something other than the internal monologue. For most people who meditate, they do not reach a state of “no thought.” Rather they focus on something else, like the sound and rhythm of their breathing, or on a mantric word or phrase. When their attention during meditation turns back to thought, as it often does, they are instructed to gently let the thoughts pass and to focus back on their breathing or mantra.

These same defocusing techniques can be used anytime and not only during “meditation time.” Dr. Ellen Langer is a proponent of mindful living that can be brought to bear on every waking moment. Also, try engaging in activities such as knitting or–now exploding in popularity–coloring in-line illustrations in coloring books for adults.

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Defusion refers to the separation of one’s sense of self from the content of one’s thoughts. (The opposite, fusion, refers to an implicit belief that we are our thoughts.) Realizing that our beliefs, assumptions, appraisals, and attributions are just hypotheses and may be completely wrong, can provide a person with a great sense of freedom. Different defusion techniques are taught in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and in Metacognitive Therapy, two “third wave” cognitive behavioral therapies.

This topic of mind chatter is of personal interest to me because I’m a self-victim of a lot of obsessive and ruminative thought.

I have often wished I could just shut up “my head.” When I was in my 20’s I found that I often felt best when I was hung-over. I felt so lousy on those mornings that I did not have the energy to think. My mind quieted down. Luckily, I avoided developing a full blown addiction. I guess I’m just not built that way. Then in my 30’s I realized that I could harness my obsessive thinking to write songs in my head, one of my most rewarding hobbies. This song writing kept my language centers occupied for long stretches of time. In my 40’s I was so busy with parenting and working on developing the business, that I did not have a lot of free time to ruminate. And when I did have some free time I was often too tired to think. Now in my 50’s I still write songs in my head. But now I also find relief with a simple thought of which I remind myself more than once a day.

“Of course I’m thinking,” I tell myself, “that’s what the human brain evolved to do. No worries. I can just let my brain chatter away. I’ll pay attention only when I want to and I’ll accept its conclusions only when they really make sense to me.”

And then I just breathe.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.”
– Will Rogers

“I think and think and think. I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, and never once into it.”
– Jonathan Safran Foer