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Why Your Most Important Relationship Is With Your Inner Voice

As Ethan Kross, an American experimental psychologist and neuroscientist, will cheerfully testify, the person who doesn’t sometimes find themselves listening to an unhelpful voice in their head probably doesn’t exist. Ten years ago, Kross found himself sitting up late at night with a baseball bat in his hand, waiting for an imaginary assailant he was convinced was about to break into his house – a figure conjured by his frantic mind after he received a threatening letter from a stranger who’d seen him on TV.

Kross, whose area of research is the science of introspection, knew that he was overreacting; that he had fallen victim to what he calls “chatter”. But telling himself this did no good at all. At the peak of his anxiety, his negative thoughts running wildly on a loop, he found himself, somewhat comically, Googling “bodyguards for academics”.

Kross runs the wonderfully named Emotion and Self Control Lab at Michigan University, an institution he founded and where he has devoted the greater part of his career to studying the silent conversations people have with themselves: internal dialogues that powerfully influence how they live their lives. Why, he and his colleagues want to know, do some people benefit from turning inwards to understand their feelings, while others are apt to fall apart when they engage in precisely the same behaviour?

Are there right and wrong ways to communicate with yourself, and if so, are there techniques that might usefully be employed by those with inner voices that are just a little too loud? Down the years, Kross has found answers to some, if not all, of these questions, and now he has collected these findings in a new book – a manual he hopes will improve the lives of those who read it.

“We’re not going to rid the world of anxiety and depression,” he says, of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It. “This is not a happy pill, and negative emotions are good in small doses. But it is possible to turn down the temperature a bit when it’s running too high, and doing this can help all of us manage our experiences more effectively.”

According to Kross, who talks to me on Zoom from his home in a snowy Ann Arbor, there now exists a robust body of research to show that when we experience distress – something MRI scans suggest has a physical component as well as an emotional one – engaging in introspection can do “significantly” more harm than good.

Our thoughts, he says, don’t save us from ourselves. Rather, they give rise to something insidious: the kind of negative cycles that turn the singular capacity of human beings for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing, with potentially grave consequences both for our mental and physical health (introspection of the wrong sort can even contribute to faster ageing).

Does this mean that it’s not, after all, good to talk? That those in therapy should immediately cancel their next appointment? Not exactly. “Avoiding our emotions across the board is not a good thing,” he says. “But let’s think about distance instead. Some people equate this word with avoidance and repression. But I think of it as the ability to step back and reflect, to widen the lens, to get some perspective. We’re not avoiding something by doing this, we’re just not getting overwhelmed.”

According to one study, we talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per minute (by way of comparison, the American president’s State of the Union address, which usually runs to about 6,000 words, lasts more than an hour). No wonder, then, that listening to it can be exhausting, whether it takes the form of a rambling soliloquy, or a compulsive rehashing of events, a free-associative pinballing from one thought to another or a furious internal dialogue.

But if such noise can be paralysing, it can also be self-sabotaging. What we experience on the inside can blot out almost everything else if we let it. A study published in 2010, for instance, shows that inner experiences consistently dwarf outer ones – something that, as Kross notes, speaks to the fact that once a “ruminative” thought takes hold of us, it can ruin even the best party, the most longed-for new job.

Why do some people have a louder or more troubling inner voice than others? “That’s harder to answer,” he says. “There are so many ways it can be activated, some genetic, some environmental.” What is certain is that these experiences cannot be discounted: “The data is overwhelming when it comes to the connection between anxiety and physical health conditions.” Those who are able to quieten their inner voice are happier; their sense of relief can be palpable.

See also:

  1. What Is Your Inner Voice?
  2. What If You Don’t Hear Any Voice?
  3. Why Don’t We Listen to Our Inner Voice?
  4. How to Listen to Your Inner Voice
  5. Moving on with Your Inner Voice
  6. Final Thoughts
  7. More About Self-Understanding

What is interesting about the science involved in all this is how it both backs up, and goes against, intuition. Much of Kross’s book is devoted to what he calls the “toolbox” of techniques that can be used to dial down chatter, and while some of these seem to contradict all that we think and feel – “venting”, for instance, can do a person more harm than good, because talking about negative experiences with friends can often work as a repellent, pushing away those you need most – others confirm that when we act on certain instincts, we’re right to do so.

To take one example, if you are the kind of person who slips into the second or third person when you are in a flap (“Rachel, you should calm down; this is not the end of the world”), you really are doing yourself some good. What Kross calls “distanced self-talk” is, according to experiments he has run, one of the fastest and most straightforward ways of gaining emotional perspective: a “psychological hack” that is embedded in “the fabric of human language”.

Talking to yourself like this – as if you were another person altogether – isn’t only calming. Kross’s work shows that it can help you make a better impression, or improve your performance in, say, a job interview. It may also enable you to reframe what seems like an impossibility as a challenge, one to which, with your own encouragement, you may be able to rise.

Some of his other techniques are already well known: the power of touch (put your arms around someone); the power of nature (put your arms around a tree). Activities that induce “awe” – a walk in the mountains, say, or time spent in front of a magnificent work of art – are also useful, helping with that sense of perspective.

Writing a daily journal can prove efficacious for some (something that felt terrible one day physically becoming old news the next), while neat freaks like me will be thrilled to discover that what he calls “compensatory control” – the creation of exterior order, better known as tidying up – really does have an impact on interior order. Reorganise your sock drawer, and you may find that your voice quietens.

Research shows, too, that superstitions, rituals and lucky charms can be useful, though most of us will draw the line at, say, taking our milk teeth with us when we fly, as the model Heidi Klum is said to (she keeps hers in a tiny bag, which she clutches during turbulence). Placebos have been found to work on chatter, just as they do in the case of some physical illnesses.

In one study in which Kross was involved, a saline nasal spray acted as a kind of painkiller for the inner voice: data from brain scans showed that those who’d inhaled it, having believed they were inhaling a painkiller, displayed significantly less activity in their brain’s social-pain circuitry compared with those who knew they had inhaled only a saline solution.

No wonder, then, that Kross believes children should be taught the science behind all of these ideas, and in the US he has already begun working with teachers to make this happen: “We want to find out if knowing this stuff influences how they regulate themselves.” Does he make use of the toolbox? (Physician, heal thyself.) “We should probably ask my wife,” he laughs. “But yes, I do, absolutely. I’m human, too.” In particular, he is “very selective” when it comes to friends from whom he seeks “chatter support”.

Kross finished his book long before the outbreak of the pandemic, let alone the storming of the Capitol. But as he observes, it could hardly be published at a more opportune moment. “This is the perfect chatter episode for society: a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, political uncertainty, widespread groupthink.” His most cited paper to date looked at the harmful implications of social media, often “a giant megaphone” for the inner voice – Facebook expressly asks its users: “What’s on your mind?” – and an environment that he thinks we need to learn to navigate with more care.

As for the pandemic, though, he is less pessimistic than some about the effects it is likely to have long-term on mental health. “We are already seeing signs that depression and anxiety are spiking,” he says. “Everyday feelings of sadness are elevated for many, and then there are more full-blown episodes. But there is also a lot of resilience, and we often underestimate that. A lot of people are doing quite well. They’re managing this hardship in an adaptive way. I am an optimist. We will return, I think, to a nicer place, though how quickly that will happen, I only wish I could say.”

Which technique should the pandemic-anxious deploy? “Well, one that I personally rely on is temporal distancing,” he says. This requires a person to look ahead: to see themselves determinedly in the future. Studies show that if you ask those going through a difficult experience how they will feel about it in 10 years’ time, rather than tomorrow, their troubles immediately seem more temporary. Does this really help him? “Yes, it does. I ask myself how I am going to feel a year from now, when I’m back in the office, and I’m seeing my colleagues, and travelling again, and taking my kids to soccer – and it gives me hope.”

It is, as he says in his book, a form of time travel: a mental Tardis that, if only we can manage to board it, may make everything from a bereavement right down to a silly argument seem less brutal, just a little easier to bear.

By: Rachel Cooke

Source: Why Your Most Important Relationship Is With Your Inner Voice

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More Contents:

There’s a Dark Side to Meditation That No One Talks About

The Running Conversation in Your Head

People Who Hear Voices in Their Head Can Also Pick Up on Hidden Speech

The ‘Untranslatable’ Emotions You Never Knew You Had

Hallucinogen Therapy Is Coming

How you attach to people may explain a lot about your inner life

How can you conquer ordinary, everyday sadness? Think of it as a person

How anxiety scrambles your brain and makes it hard to learn

10 Strategies to Keep Moving Forward When Feeling Stuck

How to Build Self Discipline to Excel in Life

How to Build Self-Esteem: A Guide to Realize Your Hidden Power

How Self-Reflection Gives You a Happier and More Successful Life

How to Be More Self-Aware and Strive to Be a Better Person

How to Attain Self Realization (Step-By-Step Guide)

Tests Show That Voice Assistants Still Lack Critical Intelligence

Image result for voice assistant

Increasingly, voice assistants from vendors such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others are starting to find their way into myriad of devices, products, and tools used on a daily basis. While once we might have only interacted with conversational systems on our phones, dedicated desktop appliances, or desktop computers, we can now find conversational interfaces on a wide range of appliances and products from televisions to cars and even toaster ovens. Soon, any device we can interact with will have an audio conversational interface instead of buttons or screens to type or click. The dawn of the conversational computing age is here.

However, are these devices intelligent enough to handle the wide range of queries that humans are posing? The objective of finding out how intelligent these systems really are is the goal of Cognilytica’s most recent Voice Assistant Benchmark aiming to test the cognitive capabilities of the most widely deployed voice assistant devices on the market. (Disclosure: I am a principal analyst with Cognilytica). 

In its second iteration, the Voice Assistant Benchmark asks 120 questions grouped into 12 categories of various levels of cognitive difficulty. These questions aim to test not only the ability for the devices to understand the questions being asked, but also their underlying knowledge graph and cognitive capabilities.

To results of the questions asked are evaluated into one of four categories: Category 0 responses are those in which the device either could not answer the question at all or defaulted the user to a search or other generic response. Category 1 responses are those in which the device responds with an irrelevant or incorrect response. Category 2 responses are those in which the device responds such that a human must make the determination as to what the right response is. Category 3 responses are clear, straightforward answers that provide an acceptable response to the user.

Each response is also marked with whether or not the response is “adequate” to address the specific question being asked. In most cases, a Category 3 response is required to be adequate, but in some situations Category 0 responses are preferred when we would rather the device not attempt to answer something that is intentionally ambiguous or even jibberish. The benchmark tallies up all the total adequate responses and then compares them against what the top score could possibly be. Since these backends are regularly improving, this benchmark is repeated regularly to see how the voice assistant responses change over time.

Results from the Benchmark

While the voice assistants this round did dramatically better than they did in the previous first version of the benchmark,  they still performed, as a whole, inadequately. For the current benchmark, Alexa provided the greatest number of adequate responses at 49 out of 144 questions asked (34.7%) while Google followed close behind with 48 out of 144 questions responded adequately (34.0%). Microsoft’s Cortana showed the biggest improvement over the past benchmark with 46 out of 144 adequate responses (31.9%). Apple’s Siri trails the pack with 35 out of 144 adequate responses (24.3%). The charts below outline overall adequate answers as well as total answers for each category 0-3.

The questions asked were those that an elementary school student should be easily able to understand and respond to. As such, if these voice assistants were in school, they’d all get a failing grade.

Interesting Responses from Voice Assistants

What is most interesting in these benchmarks is that it’s clear that the voice assistant companies are continually working on their knowledge graphs and underlying cloud-based AI technology that powers the intelligence of these devices. After all, the intelligence of these devices is not in the device itself but in the big infrastructure in the cloud powered by lots of compute power and data to support it.

So, in essence, what’s really being testing is the intelligence of the big back-end system, and not what’s on the device itself. From the benchmark, it’s clear that there is evidence that these companies are working very hard to improve and broaden their underlying data and these conversational systems continue to improve over time.

All results of the benchmark questions and answers are recorded on video to document and keep transparent the category results, and also so we can have some evidence of how these systems are improving over time.

How far away are we from truly intelligent voice assistants?

Given that these voice assistants still seem to fail with fairly basic and straightforward questions, it makes us ask: How far away are we from a truly valuable, intelligent conversational system? We’re actually much closer than it might seem. While these devices still have a long way to go to prove that they can reliably answer most questions, the rate of improvement is impressive. The major vendors are putting large teams to work making these devices better.

Amazon alone has claimed over 10,000 employees in their Alexa division. And news continues to trickle out about how Microsoft, Google, and Apple are putting humans in the loop, improving the devices by listening in on conversations. While this is definitely a controversial practice, and possibly a compliance and regulatory related concern, it is clear that the vendors are doing this to continue to train and evolve the models that power these voice assistant systems.

As such, we can expect continued cognitive capabilities in the devices, and benchmarks as the above should continue to show improvements over time. And benchmarks like this one will help show how quickly these voice assistants continue to improve.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

Ronald Schmelzer is Managing Partner & Principal Analyst at AI Focused Research and Advisory firm Cognilytica (http://cognilytica.com), a leading analyst firm focused on application and use of artificial intelligence (AI) in both the public and private sectors. He is also co-host of the popular AI Today podcast, a top AI related podcast that highlights various AI use cases for both the public and private sector as well as interviews guest experts on AI related topics.

He is a sought-after expert in AI, Machine Learning, Enterprise Architecture, venture capital, startup and entrepreneurial ecosystems, and more. Ron received a B.S. degree in Computer Science and Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and MBA from Johns Hopkins University.

Source: Tests Show That Voice Assistants Still Lack Critical Intelligence

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