The Important Third Person
It is impossible to know Julius Caesar’s full character, as the first biographies about written about his life and historic actions were written long after his death. Thus, we are reduced to interpreting some of his achievements and writings through the lens of time. Readers interested in classical studies will remember that one of Julius Ceasar’s famous and rather amusing particularities is in his writings describing his military campaigns, the Roman general spoke of himself in the third person in the singular.
The explosion of current research in neuroscience makes it possible to investigate and test automatic mental practices. Our brains and minds remain a puzzling mystery and many of the things we discover about them are quite peculiar. Our own interest as applied neuroscientists is, of course, to keep abreast of developments in current research, but also to extract from it a set of immediately applicable strategies to make our work lives easier and to make the best use of our potential
Among the recent discoveries, we found that we actually talk to ourselves mentally, in the privacy of our skull, about half the time! We are in a way inexhaustibly talkative people who spend a large part of our time engaged in our inner speech about all kinds of more or less relevant things. This inner speech can in fact take two different forms. The first is rather boring: it is made of mental ruminations about what bothers us, frustrates or frightens us. The second is more fruitful, in the sense that it brings us new perspectives, connects things in ways we had not thought of before, or even sometimes bringing solutions to problems with which we had been struggling for a long time.
Another difficulty that concerns us all is that the mental development of our species is not yet sufficient to regulate our emotional intensity. We remain emotional creatures, and even when we know that our emotions puts us at risk of acting or speaking out in embarrassing ways, it is not always easy to control them.
One of the main strategies of emotional regulation, widely used in both coaching and cognitive therapy, is to change our outlook on things (a process called cognitive reframing). However, recently, a team of researchers has however recently identified another effective strategy that does not involve cognitive control. This strategy is highly reminiscent of Julius Caesar! The researchers were able to highlight that third-person self-talk facilitates emotional regulation.
The idea is simple:
Imagine that your name is Peter and that you are attending a hi-stake team meeting in the presence of your company’s big boss. You are granted to speak up and do so skillfully. Let’s say that a co-worker, who has already caused you problems, jumps in after you to denigrate in a fairly nasty way what you’ve just said.
Chances are your emotional brain will react with a certain intensity. As it happens that there are ten times more nerve fibers transmitting impulses from the emotional brain to the executive brain than there are in the opposite direction, it is sometimes difficult to regulate our emotions. The effect of surprise, coupled with emotional distress, may deprive us of the spot of most of our capabilities.
This research can be of great help to us. The strategy would be as follows: if, for example, it is not appropriate to respond immediately, Peter
For example, he could verbalize something along those lines in his inner speech: “While Peter had just shared some interesting ideas that he hoped would attract the attention of his big boss, his colleague John stepped in abruptly to denigrate what he had just said. This incident, in many ways, was Peter’s worst fear. Knowing this topic inside out, he was delighted to be able to share his ideas. John had done this type of bashing several times in the past. Peter was, therefore, very badly taken. Rather than ruminating or overreacting in a way that could be counterproductive, he chose to assess what had just happened using third-person self-talk (like Julius Caesar) to regain enough emotional composure…”
One of the keys to the effectiveness of this strategy seems to be that it is much easier for us to think calmly about the emotions of others than about our own. As the researchers conclude : “Because of its simplicity and effectiveness, third-person self-talk could prove useful for promoting emotion regulation in daily life. Third person self-talk would be easy to disseminate at a large scale and, based on the current findings, should be fairly easy to implement.”We are very pleased to share this interesting strategy with you. And hope you’ll put it to the test in your work and home life !
Moser JS et al., Third-person self-talk facilitates emotion regulation without engaging cognitive control: Converging evidence from ERP and fMRI, Scientific Reports volume7, Articlenumber:4519 (2017)