The Cocktail Party in Your Head


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Bare oak branches along the Mississippi River in winter in January by Emily P.G. Erickson
Bare oak branches by the Mississippi River in January/Emily P.G. Erickson

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 be uncomfortably crowded in my head.

But if my head were a room and there indeed was 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 people selectively attend to particular auditory stimuli and ignore others, as at the eponymous cocktail party (remember those?). Like a biological mute button.

When I made this connection recently, I decided to see if it 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 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 kicker is that the situations I don’t have words for yet are often the ones on which I tend to ruminate. In other words, the situations most likely to draw a cognitive crowd are the times I could benefit most from muzzling the mob.

Noticing this pattern has freed me to apply the cocktail party effect to even greater benefit. When the crowd in my head begins to feel overwhelming, I ask myself: Who do I want to hear from right now? There are many people here, and I won’t be able to speak to everyone at the party. I have to choose. That question — that reality check — creates a little breathing room. It also highlights the truth: While I can’t choose all my thoughts, I can choose which I pay attention to.

When I ask myself who I want to hear from, most of the time, my answer is my wisest self. Now that I know she tends to arrive early, I can seek her out right away. If another voice tries to grab my attention, I can say: I’m not available right now. I’m speaking with her. Then I can lock eyes with my wisest self and hear what she has to say.

When I take time to listen — really listen — I feel better. I feel settled. I feel still. I feel something like that snowy scene I encountered by the Mississippi.

A version of this piece also appeared in Elemental

Try this: When your brain feels crowded, harness the cocktail party effect to focus on the wisest voice.
@emilypgerickson
Something to help calm the cognitive chatter/Emily P.G Erickson

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Something Delightful

I often keep a list of words. When I see or hear one I like, I add it to the list. The words usually feature a synchrony of sound and meaning, but not always. It is both a mindfulness and a literary practice. Noticing and using the words constitute a kind of game I play with myself.

If you’re in the mood for a game, see if you can spot some of the following words above in my essay on the cocktail party effect.

Account

Alight

Beribboned

Blink

Bolt

Capacity

Clarity

Elastic

Flock

Limb

Liminal

Nest

Nook

Oiled

Perch

Prickly

Puff

Push

Ream

Slant

Snip

Spill

Tremendous

Unfounded

Unyielding

Well

Wing

Yield


Let’s Connect!

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Published by Emily P.G. Erickson

Emily P.G. Erickson is a writer with a master's degree in psychology. Her service journalism and personal essays about mental health, mindfulness, and motherhood have appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, Romper, Elemental, and elsewhere. You can find the latest from Emily at www.emilypgerickson.com.

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