New research looking at unwanted thoughts reveals methods of how we control these thoughts.
New research looking at unwanted thoughts reveals methods of how we control these thoughts. (PC

Don’t Think About It: How Does Our Brain Control Unwanted Thoughts?

Whether it’s from daydreaming, or during experiences like meeting someone for the first time, we all occasionally have unwanted thoughts about ourselves and others. These unwanted thoughts can be distracting or even detrimental to having good mental health and focus. There are many ways that people control unwanted thoughts, but the most common method is trying to suppress them. However, new research from the non-profit scientific publisher PLOS may help to shed light on how these unwanted thoughts are actually controlled in our minds.

Background: Methods of Suppression

Most people deal with unwanted thoughts by suppressing them or pushing them out of their minds. Suppression is a “quick fix” to avoid distracting ourselves or dwelling on negative unwanted thoughts.

Unfortunately, this method has its limitations. In one study, psychologists told participants to avoid thinking of a “white bear,” resulting in most of the participants actually becoming more prone to thinking about it. Based on these results, the researchers expressed the view that suppression is a faulty method for dealing with these types of thoughts.

Other research has shown that attempts at suppression can actually cause a surge in unwanted thoughts, as well as a greater number of these thoughts over time. However, in their new study researchers for PLOS may have found a more effective method for controlling these thoughts.

Analysis: Word Associations 

Two researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem looked at how individuals avoided unwanted thoughts using word associations. Studying 80 English-speaking participants, the researchers asked these participants to view a word on a computer and type in an associated word. The experimental group of participants was told they could not reuse associations, driving the participants to suppress previous word associations. From their results, the researchers found that individuals were avoiding these repeat associations using reactive control or suppression, pushing these thoughts away after thinking of them.

According to the researchers, “This type of reactive control can be particularly problematic, because, as our findings suggest, thoughts are self-reinforcing: thinking a thought increases its memory strength and the probability that it will recur.”

Yet, some individuals were able to bypass the suppression method by being proactive. “Critically, we found that people can partially preempt this process if they want to ensure this thought comes to mind as little as possible,” the authors added. By working proactively and thinking creatively, some participants were able to think of new word associations, as opposed to suppressing the old ones. This method hints at a possible new way to avoid psychological suppression.

Outlook: Moving Past Unwanted Thoughts

While suppression dwells on avoiding the negative, this new proactive method pushes towards the positive. Thinking instead about more positive ideas or realistic goals seems to help avoid unwanted thoughts altogether. This method is not foolproof, but the researchers did state that this could avoid increasing “the probability of it coming to mind again.”

More research will be required in order to fully investigate this more proactive method further, but for now, it does suggest a potentially more successful way of banishing unwanted thoughts and, in turn, possibly boosting mental health overall. 

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). Her writing beats include deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: