What’s Up With the Critical Voice in my Head?

Why Does My Brain Do That Preview

In this series, bestselling neuroscience author Dr Dean Burnett answers Shambles Patreon subscribers questions about their brains. A sort of neuroscientific agony aunt if you will.

Kay asks: First off why does it feel like there is a voice in my head that just loves it when I make a mistake, and likes to then bring up every other mistake I’ve ever made and every mean thing someone has ever said to me. It then starts reminding me of every single painful or traumatic event from my past, seemingly for the fun of it? It will then go on to tell me that I’m a worthless idiot and that not even my friends or family even like me – despite all evidence to the contrary.   And why do I listen to that voice?  And why does my brain panic if someone congratulates me on something, and tries to throw out reasons why they are wrong to do so, leaving me feeling like I have somehow misled that person into thinking anything I’ve done has any value at all.  In short. Why does it actively dislike me?In fairness, you DID say we could waffle. But I’m now feeling guilty that I’ve asked too much or that perhaps it’s all signs of being significantly and irreparably broken and therefore to be avoided. See? It’s off again, and so shall I be.

Hi Kay

So, basically, you want to know where this persistent critical voice in your head comes from? And what its deal is?

A very valid question, and one I can’t imagine you’re alone in wondering about. There are countless cartoon portrayals out there of individuals with a little devil and angel on each shoulder, representing one’s good and bad inclinations. But in a truer reflection of reality, they would have just one little character, constantly questioning every choice they make, and berating them for it regardless of outcome. I’d expect this character to probably take the form of a pushy parent, or particularly stern and unpleasant teacher. Your milage may vary.

Such a thing is so common because there seems to be a specific brain region dedicated to this kind of thinking. The orbitofrontal cortex has many functions, but a key one seems to be regulating decision making, in the context of emotion and reward. Put simply, it’s the part of your brain that, when presented with a decision or course of action, asks “What is the outcome of doing this?” and “Is it worth doing?”

It’s obviously much more complex than this, but it’s essentially a part of your own brain that’s regularly going “Are you sure about this? Is this a good idea? Why are you doing this?”, which is basically the bulk of what the little critical voice in your head is doing.

The thing is, making decisions and pursuing courses of action aren’t the domain of one particular brain region; a vast and complex network of neurological factors come into play. And the orbitofrontal cortex need not be the one with the final say in what we do. So, we can, and regularly do, make decisions, and pursue courses of action, that our orbitofrontal cortex (and other analytical brain regions) concludes are unwise, or unhelpful. Perhaps, in the moment, the emotional inclination to do ‘the thing’ were more potent influences than the logical and rational factors. Perhaps we put too much weight on one aspect of the decision when, with hindsight, we should have prioritised a different aspect.

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My point is, it’s far from unusual for us to do things we later consider to be wrong, or unwise. It’s just human nature.

But one thing our brain is always doing, is appraising, evaluating, and updating its understanding of how everything works. I mentioned this in the previous article about why emotions are inconsistent. This is likely part of that whole process; recognising when you’ve made a mistake, and working to update your understanding and future behaviours because of it.

Unfortunately, this often overlaps with the human brain’s negativity bias. Thanks to our brain’s deeply ingrained survival instincts, we focus much more on things that are potentially hazardous to us, even if it’s just in theory.

And again unfortunately, the power of the human brain means ‘potentially hazardous’ covers an extremely large range of abstract possibilities. The possibility of embarrassment, of failure, of inconveniencing others, or losing status, of missing opportunities; our brains are powerful enough that all of these things can be labelled as ‘a hazard to be avoided’.

If you combine this with our existing tendencies to evaluate and update our decision making and actions, you can easily end up in a situation where you become excessively focussed on the mistakes you have made, or could make. And that ultimately explains the hyper-critical ‘voice in your head’, as your brain is expending a lot of energy on finding and avoiding mistakes, and their subsequent hazards. Anxiety disorders arise in this way regularly.

If this happens often enough, thinking about your own mistakes can readily lead to triggering related memories, ones which feature the same emotional quality. So, your brain is dredging up past mistakes, often apropos of nothing.

And if your brain has invested enough time and effort into this hyper-awareness of your own shortcomings, however unintentional that was, then anything that challenges this world view can then be perceived as a threat. Because our brain has invested a great deal into this current way of thinking, so anything which says ‘no, that’s all wrong’ means all that work and subsequent understanding is wasted. So, we resist it, and look for ways to dismiss it. And lo, if people praise us, we dismiss or deny it, even if it’s perfectly logical or reasonable.

If things have got this bad for you, then I would suggest you may need to seek out some therapeutic intervention, as it sounds like it’s impacting your ability to function, which is never a good thing.

But rest assured, you’ve nothing to apologise for. Your brain is getting carried away. It’s a common aspect of being human. It sucks, but seems like we’re stuck with it.

Dean explores the mechanisms of how our brains work against us in much more detail in his new book, out now.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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