01/21/2011 05:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

When Talking to Yourself Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

We all accept the validity of the unconscious mind. Unlike other concepts, however, we accept it on belief alone since, by definition, it's outside of awareness.

But there's a form of mental activity that falls between conscious and unconscious processing that offers a glimpse of how the unconscious works. Let's call it auditory peripheral processing.

Like peripheral vision, it focuses on sensory information in your mind that typically goes unnoticed. And what goes unnoticed can have interesting consequences -- bad and good. But first some context:

We humans are creatures of words. More than anything, language defines who we are as a species. We are the storytelling animals. We just love to talk. In fact, as has become self-evident with the advent of digital devices, we can't stop talking. Cell phones and computers are now extensions of our minds, connected on some biotechnological level that none of us fully comprehends. We just can't shut up. And If we're not talking, texting or emailing, we're thinking about the next thing we're going to say to someone.

Most of this chatter plays in the background like music in the waiting room of a doctor's office. It's so common that at times, like air, it tends to go completely unnoticed. But these internal "sound bites" may positively or negatively influence our mood or behavior when they slide across the screen of consciousness, occasionally accompanied by some imagery. At other times, however, the chatter is a bit more conversational.

There is one place where internal conversations are downright problematic and even life threatening. This is when you're eating. Interestingly, it's rarely spoken of, due mostly to ignorance.

There is clearly something to be said for a more mindful state while one is eating. First, you can enjoy your food a bit more. Second, you can become aware of the sensations of fullness more easily so you can keep track of quantity. And third, you avoid the potentially hazardous consequences of mind-drift while eating: choking. If this sounds overblown, I assure you it is not: choking is almost always caused by a wandering mind during an internal dialogue. It's more likely to occur when you're angry. It falls into the category of universal experiences. Furthermore, nobody ever remembers why it happened. The reason is simple. The trauma caused by the potentially life threatening event generates immediate amnesia.

However, using peripheral processing strategically can be an effective strategy (albeit under the right circumstances).

Psychotherapy is now dominated by conversation. In this case it's the talking in our heads. Where feelings dominated the therapeutic landscape, it's now thoughts. Cognitive psychotherapy has now taken prominence in helping people to become more aware of their negative internal banter. And it is here -- in the theater of internal banter -- that peripheral processing calls home.

Further, there are additional ways to ways to influence internal conversations one of which is through harnessing the power of the hypnagogic state. In between waking and sleep, "twilight consciousness" offers a window for auditory information to be processed without awareness. There are a variety of hypnotic strategies available to maximize the mind's peripheral processing capabilities. The point here is to introduce positive "sound bites" in a subtle fashion, allowing you to make use of the sliver of space between the conscious and unconscious minds.

Remarkably, changing the tenor of your internal conversations can improve your personal and business relationships, manage negative emotional states, and increase self esteem. And in some occasions, mere awareness can be nothing short of a lifesaver.

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