This Is Why You Can't Control Your Thoughts

Most of us have very little control over what we are thinking about. StuningArt/Shutterstock

In the Buddhist tradition, the human mind is often likened to a monkey because of its lack of discipline, focus, or stillness, and mischievous tendency to swing indecisively to and fro. Confirming this ancient comparison, a new study in the journal Psychological Science reveals that the amount of control that most of us have over our thoughts is “not significantly above zero.”

As everyone knows, it’s almost impossible not to think about something that you are trying not to think about. Researchers from the University of New South Wales, therefore, devised an experiment in which participants were assigned a specific object that they were forbidden to think about. Each of these objects was colored either red or green, such as a red apple or a green cucumber.

Participants were told to indicate when this unthinkable item entered their thoughts by pushing a button. They were then shown a red image in one eye and a green image in the other, and asked to state which of the two colors was dominant.

Those who had been assigned a red item almost always saw red as the dominant color, while those who had been trying not to think about something green were much more likely to see green as dominant. According to the study authors, this suggests that each participant’s visual cortex was already conjuring that color, indicating that the forbidden item was being visually represented in the brain despite attempts to suppress it.

This effect was also observed in those who believed that they had successfully suppressed the thought and did not press the button. Therefore, the researchers conclude that these visual thoughts were present on an unconscious level, shedding light on why people sometimes experience unwanted cravings or other uncontrollable urges.

Study author Joel Pearson said in a statement that “this discovery changes the way we think about thoughts of desire and suggests unconscious thoughts can emerge and drive our decisions and behaviour.” In other words, “using brute force to not think about something – that cigarette or that drink – simply won’t work because the thought is actually there in our brains.”

However, while simply trying not to think about something may not be possible, the researchers found that instructing participants to think about a separate white object removed the tendency to see either red or green as dominant. They conclude that this “thought substitution” approach may be effective at helping people eliminate certain unwanted thoughts.

Results also showed that people who achieved higher scores on a test designed to measure levels of mindfulness were more successful at suppressing thoughts, lending yet more conviction to the Buddhist notion that meditation is the best way to tame the monkey mind.

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