Stop reading, put your hands on your lap, close your eyes and sit quietly. Take a few, deep breaths; then open your eyes.
As you were still, did you hear an internal voice speaking to you? Perhaps commenting on what a silly exercise this was, or telling you that your emails may be a better use of your time than reading this?
That voice didn’t switch on just because you were suddenly paying attention—it is always there in the background, narrating your experience; the newscaster telling you “how it is.”
The voice places a sticky note on everything in its path: People are “arrogant”; your physical surroundings: “tacky”; the music: “too loud”; your body: “too fat.” The voice won’t stop at commenting on the physical self, it will also judge your thoughts: “I shouldn’t feel angry, I am not as smart as my friend, when will I start feeling better?”
When I jog, my voice thinks she is an Olympic commentator: “She is so slow today, could this be the end of her career?” As I wait for a text to be returned from a colleague, the voice goads me, suggesting that she hasn’t responded because she probably couldn't care less about me. When faced with a difficult work problem the voice can be downright underhanded, hijacking my performance. “I can’t do this,” I think, “I will fail and lose my job.” The voice also extends to my personal and family life, In the changing room of a clothing store I can count on her to opine: “Look at those thighs, could you finally lose some weight?” She often keeps me up at night with her yackety-yacking, keeping me ruminating over the spat I had with my husband, and suggesting ways I could be a better wife in the morning. When my son doesn’t return home on time, my voice creates horrific scenarios about what has happened to him.
Occasionally the voice is rewarding, she croons: “Look at my great car, it is so much nicer than the neighbors’,” or, “I look so much younger than my classmates.” The voice in our heads isn’t interested in nuance or the profound truth of a situation, it just labels superficially, without hesitation or forethought. Relentlessly commenting, judging, comparing. Growing up I would have likened it to a cheap AM talk radio host—now I think of the voice as a “24-hour fake news anchor” who can be characterized as:
Dramatic: Much more interested in the bad news than in the good. Eloquent: Never at a loss for words. Confidant and Self-assured: The voice doesn’t ask, it tells. It is so assertive that it leaves us with the feeling that every thought it generates is the final word. Reactive: Valuing quick coherence and plausibility over nuanced truth. Blaming: Judges self and others harshly Competitive: Loves to categorize and rank, comparing our situation to those of others, or to past personal experiences. Notice, that even when the voice is kind to me (in my examples), she is cataloging me against other people or my past. She generates a precarious sense of happiness as it rests on my ability to maintain that ranking.
In summary, the voice does not interpret the world with joy or connection in mind, but is focused solely on coherence and survival.
How did that voice get there? As it turns out, the voice is something that everyone experiences—it appears in our psyche around the age of two. Our earliest experience of the voice can be heard in the simple names we ascribe to things: Toy, mom, dad. Things get interesting when we start to use the conceptual word “my”: my toy, my mom, my dad—and become more complex as we add adjectives: good toy, bad toy, good mom, bad mom. These sophisticated concepts help us develop our autonomy by allowing us to make decisions for ourselves. At the same time, the stories we create about ourselves, such as “My mom loves my sister more,” or “I am a bad boy,” deepen, and start to gnaw at our psyches.
And yet, we do not have to be slaves to the voice—we can move past its negativity (which can have critical effects on our thoughts, actions, and overall worldview) by engaging in the practices of mindfulness and the power of inquiry. In this document, I’ll provide more detail about the voice and point you toward ways that you can begin to take back control from it in your life.
The Left Brain Interpreter: A Brief History.
In scientific circles, “the voice,” or the creator of our stories, is called the “left brain interpreter,” and was incidentally discovered by Dr. Michael Gazzaniga in the 1970’s. Gazzaniga was studying patients with life-threatening epilepsy: Like wildfires, their seizures would ignite in one hemisphere of the brain and quickly cross over to the other via a band of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum (that connects the two lobes).
Gazzaniga posited that by cutting the bridging corpus callosum, he could limit the seizure activity to one lobe, reducing the potential for seizures by 50%: It worked. Today, thanks to the advances made in pharmaceuticals this procedure is now rarely performed. However, the byproduct of this surgery was that his patients were effectively living with two distinct brains, each lobe acting independently of the other without any idea what the other lobe was thinking.
Gazzaniga’s patients led surprisingly normal lives, and were able to go about their daily activities in the same ways they had before their operations; their superficial cognitive tests seemed normal. On closer inspection, however, researchers observed that the left lobe was not merely a carbon copy of the right, specific brain functions were isolated to one side or the other. For example, the left lobe was able to put a patients’ ideas into words, but not the right. When the patient spoke, the researchers knew these thoughts were coming from the left lobe of the brain; the right brain was functional, but mute.
Dr. Gazzaniga then developed a system of visual cueing which allowed him to communicate directly to one lobe of the brain in isolation of the other. For example, he presented the word “walk,” only as an image, to the right brain. The patient got up and moved towards the door. Gazzaniga then directly asked the left brain, which was unaware of the visual instruction, why he had gotten up. The left lobe should have answered “I don’t know, it was probably the right lobe’s idea, but we don’t communicate anymore,” but it did not have this awareness. Instead, the left lobe used its interpreter (aka “the voice”) to say: “I needed a coke.” Now, the left lobe wasn’t trying to fib—it would have passed a lie detector test—it just used its interpreter to make up the most plausible scenario (to which it had limited insight).
For the first time in a scientifically observed situation, Gazzaniga had caught the interpreter (or, the voice) in the act of creating a story—simply trying to make sense of the world as it had been doing for the patient since the age of two. He surmised that the interpreter takes in input from someone’s world (including sights, sounds, smells, emotions, thoughts and memories) and then integrates all of these elements into an ongoing narrative that feeds that person’s perception of themselves and the world around them. It seeks to reconcile one’s past and future to provide a story that is coherent, and has a sense of uninterrupted flow. Because the interpreter is reactionary, however, it is critical to remember that this “story of our lives” is woven with a continuous thread of quickly formed labels and judgments.
Why the Interpreter can’t be trusted. In the case I just referred to, the patient’s story was not emotionally charged and therefore didn’t carry much weight, but things can get dramatic when, for example, the voice interprets a frown from one’s boss as being proof that he doesn’t like them, or when someone constructs a story (e.g. “I’m not good at my job” ) to explain a lost sales pitch. These narratives can greatly influence our perceptions of ourselves in the world and impact our lives.
As I mentioned previously, the interpreter doesn’t stop at commenting on the external world- it also monitors our internal feelings and emotions and makes the best guess as to what is going on in our inner worlds (often inaccurately).
For example, in one study, young men were asked to evaluate the attractiveness of a woman on a scale of 1-10. The cohort of men who answered the questions following an exhilarating roller coaster ride ranked her attractiveness significantly higher than the men who hadn’t. In this case, participants listening to the cues of their interpreter had confused the arousal of the ride with the arousal stimulated by the woman.
In my experience, nowhere is this confusion of signals more obvious then when I get “hangry” or when I am physically ill. In these cases, my interpreter often confuses the inner workings of my body with psychological conflicts. It takes all my mindfulness not to get hooked on a negative outlook in these contexts.
The Evolution of the Interpreter
Our minds’ ability to develop rapid conceptual classifications is a huge evolutionary advantage. For one, the capacity to label promotes a common language that humans use, which enables them to work together easily as a team.
The evolutionary effects of the Interpreter are much more profound than simply allowing us to classify things, however. At its most persistent, the voice prompts us to feel intensely unsettled in our lives, triggering a deep desire for “more” of everything: A larger home; more friends; beautiful clothing, fancier food—all external validations. The craving for more worked in our past when basic survival was the essential human issue and the biggest and best weapons determined who passed on their genes. The guy who was merely present and happy in the moment may not have survived.
Though we no longer live in a time where our basic survival is threatened, the Interpreter chugs along looking for drama, scanning for threats, ranking, dividing and creating stories that leave us feeling anxious, as if our very life depended on it.
To be sure, the interpreter is essential to our survival: We must listen to the voice telling us not trust a business partner blindly. It is important to evaluate our bodies and habits of consumption in order to stay healthy. The problem is that, like wildfires or seizures, we have allowed the left brain interpreter to go into hyperdrive and be the dominant brain function that drives our existence. We believe its every word, assuming that if the voice tells us that we are terrible runners and that we are fat and unworthy, then that is the truth. We assume that our friends don’t answer our texts because they don’t care, and we always believe the voice when it tells us that we are somehow better than others.
The Interpreter has gone from being a trusted servant to an imperious master.
Cognitive errors lead to “self” improvement
When our interpreters determine that we are not OK just as we are, we go to great lengths to appease it. We diet thinking that the skinnier version of ourselves will be happier. We dive into self-improvement and goal achieving, thinking that once we get married, promoted, divorced, own a home, sell a home, have kids, be empty nesters, and have all the other trappings of a successful life, we will have peace of mind. This leaves us in a constant state of assessing who we think we are and comparing this made up story to the “self” we want to be in the future or makes us constantly compare ourselves to images in magazines.
When we can't appease the voice, we try to ignore it. We distract ourselves so as not to be alone with our thoughts. We innocently check emails in the coffee line, or, more consequently, jones for a drink after work to “get out of our heads.” Most of our compulsions and addictions are fueled by our desire to numb ourselves from our near constant negative interpretations of the world.
In the digital era, we have turned distraction into a national past time and are rarely left to just “be” in this world. And yet, this brain down time is vital to our capacity to process our thoughts and emotions. Ironically, our constant distraction leads to further cognitive errors and dissatisfaction.
Marketers of know this: Keeping us in our interpreters’ stories is good for business.
As Gazzaniga pointed out: “the self is a fiction invented by the brain.” We must remember that there isn’t, in fact, any “self” to improve. What we think of as a self is a memory of a series of interpretations created by the Interpreter—a fiction-generating machine whose purpose is not joy, but survival. To look for happiness in the Interpreter’s stories is futile because the voice is a tool for survival tool, not happiness..
In my own journey to self-knowledge, I have found this to be a most salient observation. To know that the voice that I have long considered to be "me" is just a commentary on the world allows me to take these interpretations less seriously. I understand that my interpreter is full of cognitive errors and isn’t the whole deal. This awareness in itself takes the edge off when I get triggered.
I also understand that I don’t need to go on a quest to improve myself just because my interpreter says so: I am fine just as I am. You are fine, just as you are. If we need to do anything, it is to question the thoughts and stories that the Interpreter invents that cause us so much pain. Challenging these thoughts can lead us to a space of calmness and clarity, a much more reliable place from which to make decisions than the frenzied “must have more” space of the interpreter.
Why do we listen to the interpreter? A recent study suggested that “fake news” was much more likely to be retweeted than real news. Humans are fascinated with drama, even if we know that the events being reported aren’t necessarily true. This fascination also has a survival benefit: it is better that we believe too much bad news than too little.
When we aren’t mindful and allow the Interpreter to rule the roost, our healthy habit of looking out for potential harm in our environment turns into a self-deprecating and insidious obsession. Like any addiction, this robs us of our mind’s resources. Our stressful thoughts paralyze us from actioning healthy decisions.
Is There a Way To Mitigate the Voice of the Interpreter?
Imagine yourself on the beach. You are listening to the waves, sinking your toes in the sand, feeling the breeze on your cheeks: You are reveling in the the experience of the beach. The Interpreter might want to chime in “This is great, I am so lucky” or “It’s not as nice as last year,” but by being mindful, and focusing on the sensual pleasures of the beach can turn the voice of the Interpreter down—much like dialing down the volume on a radio. Focus: You are “at the beach” and not “thinking about being at the beach,” and you are using alternate parts of your brain when you develop this kind of awareness.
As it turns out, we have vast neural networks available to us from which to experience our world. The Interpreter really just reflects a small portion of your brain, even though it feels like it is the voice of all of your experience—especially when you get wrapped up in your own drama.
Think about these experiences: Have you ever had a genuine conversation where you felt attuned to your partner and weren’t “overthinking” everything you said? Have you given a speech or sales pitch where you were so confident that it felt like someone else was running your brain? How does it feel when you lose track of time? Have you ever played a sport where the world seemed to disappear and you felt in the flow of the game? Have you ever written a paper and not gotten writer’s block? How do you feel when you are walking in nature? Have you ever been blown away by a sunset? Do you listen to or play music? Have you played with a child lately, and genuinely laughed?
If so, you have already had some practice of using the other parts of your brain to navigate your world and not relied solely on the left brain interpreter.
Mindfulness practice teaches us to move our minds from our Interpreter to this other space of awareness. In meditation, mindfulness practitioners rehearse this by directing their attention from our thoughts to the experience of our breath. As we train for this in meditation, it becomes easier to do in “real life.”
That’s My Story, and It’s Sticking to Me
A belief is simply a thought we think many times. When ideas become beliefs, they become sticky, and moving out of the realm of the Interpreter becomes a challenge. “That is my story, and it is sticking to me” is often truer for me than the original expression. I often find myself clinging to my stories, unable to move into being mindful, being present for any length of time. Some of my stories seem banal, such as when I perceive that a co-worker is being rude to me, or when I am nervous about closing a deal. Other stories have a longer and deeper arc and pop up recurrently, such as: “I can’t speak in public” or “My kids should show me more respect.” These stories leave me feeling stuck, unable to see the world through any other lens than that of my Interpreter. Presence, awareness, compassion seem like far away ideals that I can't access. In fact, the knowledge that I should be able to access other parts of my brain only fuels my frustration and deepens my negativity.
When caught in these “thought storms,” I need help going beyond the cognitive errors of my Interpreter.
After a long search, I have found inquiry to be the most specific and potent tool for unlearning my interpreter's stories and allowing me to move my mind into a less reactive way of thinking.
The Power of the Practice of Inquiry
“Inquiry” is simply the act of questioning the validity of a given belief. Beginning with “Is it true?”, mindfulness practitioners use a series of questions to interrogate the nature of our stressful thoughts.
Like a mother who carefully looks under the bed with her frightened child to show him that there are no monsters there, inquiry allows the mature, and less reactive parts of our mind to guide the us through a stressful scenario. From that perspective, a new reality can emerge: One that is always kinder than the impulsive interpretations of the left brain. Through this process, we can experience the error in our thinking: What we thought happened, actually didn’t. Our story becomes less sticky, and we can move back into a state of flow and presence.
Beyond our stressful stories, we are left with a rekindled capacity for connection with our peers, our environments and ourselves, where it is possible to be in the world without ruminating over and rehearsing our every moment.
Personally, the process of inquiry has been the most helpful for engendering stronger relationships. When I see through my judgmental assumptions about others, I return to being the kind and wise doctor, manager, wife, and mother that I want to be. For me, developing the capacity to “reality check” the quick-witted and irascible left brain interpreter has enabled me to focus on creating a compassionate heart.