Does Your Brain’s Inner Chatter Matter?

Does Your Brain’s Inner Chatter Matter?

Having the ‘voice’ in your head is nearly universal. Maybe you just said to yourself, “What voice?” Yes, you have that voice. For some it is a never-ending inferno of misery and for others, it’s a daily friend and valued conscience. A quality inner voice can be a valuable asset in your life. It is literally the difference between the slippery path downhill or a solid, joyful life. Interested in knowing how to get the voice on your side? If so, maybe this month you’re willing to take a moment to find out how to run your own brain a bit better.

The Research

Decades ago a big ‘aha’ struck Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, the co-father of the split brain (left – right) hemisphere discovery. When patients were shown an image within the right visual field (which maps to the left hemisphere), he/she could detail in words what was seen. However, when the image was only presented to the left visual field (which maps to the right brain hemisphere), the subjects said there was “nothing there.” They were at a loss for words.

Yet, when the subjects were pressed again, for even just a guess, they made up things. Gazzaniga then realized that if the left brain is deprived of the information required to understand a situation, it will invent an explanation (Gazzaniga, 2000). One of Gazzaniga’s enduring legacies is how the left hemisphere will ‘cover’ for itself. He named it the ‘narrative’ (or ‘story-telling’) hemisphere.

Everyday, as you try to reason out something, the left hemisphere strives to reduce uncertainty (building our ‘back story’ using the how and why). Simultaneously, the right hemisphere strives to resolve inconsistency within the left hemisphere’s reasoning (Marinsek, Turner, Gazzaniga & Miller, 2014). Another way to word this would be to say the left hemisphere’s job is to create a model and maintain it at all costs. The right hemisphere’s strategy is to be the ‘anomaly detector’ to find flaws. The ‘twinge of doubt’ or the ‘gut feeling’ that something is wrong is often your right brain saying, “Uh-oh.”

Your everyday life is chock-a-block with a constant stream of self-talk (often referred to as ‘inner chatter’) and over 90% of adults report they have an inner voice (Winsler, Feder, Way & Manfra, 2006). However, self-reports from a randomly triggered app engaged by over 5,000 subjects, gave discouraging results. Researchers discovered over half of all self-talk is unrelated to what we’re doing (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). And, nearly one fourth of our entire day we are doing our self-talk while engaged in other tasks (Heavey & Hurlburt, 2008).

In the last decade, narrative exploration has become important in education, humanities, social sciences, medicine, neuroscience, and psychotherapy for understanding human meaning making (Lewis, 2011). Our narrative may confer a sense of ‘creating and knowing’ in either a helpful or harmful way. Stories or narratives provide a feeling of consistency and continuity in the world. As you might guess, a dysfunctional brain narrative can also ruin our lives.

Over time, scientists realized that our brain’s narrative is our brain’s ‘inner culture.’ So, when our stories are dysfunctional, we are dysfunctional. The way you tell your story of reality (replaying the past or catastrophizing the future) connects directly to the way you behave. If you want to change the way you approach your life, you’ll need to change the story. Stories never make change happen; they open (or close) the doors, allow you to feel comfortable or uncomfortable, and invite a change.(Suzuki, Feliú-Mójer, Hasson, Yehuda & Zarate, 2018).

So, how do we understand and change our stories?

Practical Applications

Here are three key pathways to influence our stories.

1. Stay in the moment. Thinking about that which you are already doing, right in the moment is the simplest and one of the best paths to be happy. Time-traveling narratives (replaying the past or predicting the future) is easy to do, but it’s usually destructive. You’re much happier when focused on setting a table while you’re actually thinking of doing it well, than setting the table and planning a vacation (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).

Although imagining pleasant alternatives is naturally preferable to imagining unpleasant ones, the happiest scenario is to not be imagining at all. Mental focus (when you sync up a thought to action) is a much better predictor of happiness than daydreaming.

2. Recognize the destructive self-talk. Self-talk can be neutral, negative, or positive. Persistent negative self-talk tends to fall into multiple categories.

  • Personalizing – Meaning you blame yourself when things go wrong (whether it is true or not).
  • Rehashing – This is when you go over what happened again and again, often in an effort to figure something out.
  • “I’m Not Unique” – You are thinking there’s nothing new you can do. It’s all already been done. “My efforts are a waste.”
  • Polarizing – Meaning you see things only as an extreme (good or bad), with zero room for middle ground.
  • “It’s Too Hard” – This is you backing away from a challenge, thinking you are insufficient for the task.
  • Justifying – You create scenarios where you feel righteous for something you did, and that others thought was destructive.
  • Magnifying – You only focus on the bad or negative in every scenario and dismiss anything good or positive.
  • Laying blame – This is a mind trap in which some uncomfortable feeling is expelled by holding yourself responsible for another’s pain or holding others responsible for your pain.
  • Catastrophizing – Meaning you always expect the worst and do “What if…” scenarios often.
  • “It’s Too Late for Me” – If you think ‘your time’ has passed or you missed your chance…. guess what? If you’re reading this, you’ve got a lot more chances.

You might identify with only one of these categories, or perhaps with multiple ones. The point is that once you start noticing and categorizing your thoughts like this, you can then begin to work on switching them for more positive frames. Watch and listen to your self-talk. The stories you tell yourself are the ones you’re more likely to believe. Keep in mind: a strong part of whether you love or hate the life you have is generated by your repeated self-talk.

3. Finally, engage in ‘another person’ talk using identity and imperfective verbs (Imperfective verbs describe action that is, was, or will be ongoing).

Positive self-talk is more valuable for cognitive tasks than for inner counseling in life skills. But there is value for both. If purposeful positive self-talk seems new to you, it might be difficult to know where to begin in terms of effective positive statements and phrases to try.

It’s important to know that not everyone’s positive self-talk will be the same, and you should try a few different approaches to find the one that ultimately works for you. The truth is our self-talk can actually have a much bigger influence on the way we see ourselves and the world around us than we realize. And certain KINDS of self-talk are far more valuable than others.

As an example; the human capability to use language, which allows for persuasion of others, can also provide a tool for you to influence your self-talk. Following are two ‘self-talk’ examples, with the second being more effective:

“I am strong and resilient. I can do this challenge; I have done this before.”

“Hey, Eric. You are strong and resilient. Stay with the challenge; you’re doing this all the time.”

Let’s peel back the differences between these two. First, when you use the ‘voice’ in your own head as if another person is talking to you (in the 2nd example) you are using the first of three ‘angles’ of grammar to nudge yourself towards the best outcome.

Second, engage your chosen identity: “Eric, you are strong and resilient…

Finally, to have a greater chance of invoking change, your inner voice should talk as if the actions are ongoing (“… you’re doing this all the time.”) Another example of using the imperfective verb is “I am still flossing my teeth” vs “I flossed my teeth on Monday”. The ongoing action describes experiences as continuing into the future rather than a completed ‘memory.’ When a task is relevant to you, performance is enhanced by the usage of the imperfective verb form (Hart & Albarracín, 2009).

Let’s review. Stay in the present. Identify your types of negative self-talk. Change them with a simple step. Talk to yourself as if you’re your own best friend. In fact, talk to yourself like a loved one would talk to you. Avoid talking about finished actions.

How you speak to yourself is critical. Positive self-talk can heal emotional pain just as well, or better, than a pain pill. Remember, your self-determined nature is influenced by self-talk.

Teach your students how to write affirmations and engage better quality self-talk in themselves. Enjoy the results.

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education


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Senay I, Albarracín D & Noguchi K. (2010). Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk: The role of the interrogative form of simple future tense. Psychological Science. 21,499–504.
Suzuki WA, Feliú-Mójer MI, Hasson U, Yehuda R & Zarate JM. (2018). Dialogues: The Science and Power of Storytelling. J Neurosci. 38, 9468-9470.
Winsler A, Feder A, Way EL, Manfra L. (2006). Maternal beliefs concerning young children’s private speech. Infant and Child Development. 15, 403–420.
Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

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