Literature and now science suggest muttering in the second or third person can help with anxiety in difficult moments
No one actively likes wearing a mask, but for some of us putting one on does more than merely help to stop the spread. Last week, I interviewed a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist who told me that a few people have told him that if they wear theirs outside, at least no one will see them talking to themselves as they doggedly march yet again around their local park. Is talking to yourself a sign of incipient madness? On this, he had good news: no, it isn’t. The latest science, in fact, suggests that muttering to yourself in the second or third person (“Rachel, you are not imagining things”) really can help to quieten an inner voice that may be a little too loud for comfort.
As we spoke, something fell into place for me, for doesn’t literature suggest that human beings have always done this? Consider the diaries of Dr Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, in which he often slips out of the first person when he’s anxious: an effect that’s comical and touching. “Yesterday you was pretty well,” reads his entry for 4 April 1764. “But confused and changed and desperate. After dinner, you said to Rose, ‘I have passed a very disagreeable winter of it, with little enjoyment.’ You was truly splenetic. You said to him after, ‘When I recollect, ’twas not so.’ You are imbecile.” I’ve always thought of Boswell as the most deeply human of writers. But now I shall forever think of him as deeply sane, too: a pioneer of mind control as well as of biography.