The Cocktail Party in Your Head
When your brain feels crowded, focus on the wisest voice
One Sunday afternoon, while walking along the river path near where I live in Saint Paul, I wandered off the pavement to a clearing where the bluffs swing out over the Mississippi. I watched the wind push a pocket of snow from its perch in an oak to the cold ground below. During its ethereal descent through a slant of sunlight, the snow sparkled.
In the wintertime, a serene stillness settles over the land. My brain, however, doesn’t get the memo. When everything outside of me is quiet, inside, my mind’s chatter revs up.
The voices berate me and repeat themselves incessantly. Frankly, they’re downright rude. The details are boring. They feature my personal bugaboos — namely, that I’m a failure, with all the ubiquitous castigation that implies. It can get uncomfortably crowded in my head.
But if my head were a room, and there really were a crowd in it, it might not be quite so bad. Why? The cocktail party effect. The cocktail party effect is the psychological phenomenon whereby we can selectively attend to particular auditory stimuli and ignore others, just as we do at the eponymous party. (Remember those?) It’s like a biological mute button.
When I made this connection recently, I decided to see if I could apply the cocktail party effect internally. I was surprised by what I found.
I began by noticing the different thoughts in my head. Then I practiced tuning in to specific thoughts while letting others fade into the background. This practice, which reminded me of Vipassana meditation, was helpful in itself. Turning up the volume on one stream of thoughts at a time reduced the sense of claustrophobia I’d been feeling. Then I began to notice a pattern.
When I examined the content of my thoughts one by one, I learned that for me, one of my first thoughts is often the wisest. The rest are frequently an attempt to muscle my way toward logical narrative coherence, which sometimes fails to account for important information for which I don’t yet have the words. This order makes sense because our intuition is better positioned to synthesize many everyday situations than we tend to appreciate in these data-driven, analytical times. The…