“…There has been a machine installed in my head, and this machine has been continuously lining up thoughts, impressions, without a break. If I only had the control of this machine, if I only thought of the things I wanted, in the order I wanted them to be, who knows what I could have achieved. If there weren’t so many rubbish thoughts in my head, if my brain were full of thoughts that even I would like sometimes… I am losing. I am losing because of this chaos and not being able to control the situation.”
(from the Turkish novel “Tehlikeli Oyunlar (Dangerous Plays)” written by Oguz Atay. I translated the paragraph from Turkish.)
Do you ever find yourself thinking:
“I wish I could stop thinking about it.”
“Sometimes I really wish I could stop thinking at all.”
“Why do I have these thoughts? What is wrong with me?”
“I wish I could stop the noise in my head.”
“Why can’t I have more normal thoughts?”
“I shouldn’t be thinking about this.”
“Nobody must know that I have these kind of thoughts.”
Don’t you ever wish that you could clean your head up just like the way you clean up the kitchen counter?
No negative thoughts, no insecurities, no feelings you don’t feel like you can handle, no guilt, no fear.
Wouldn’t that be just wonderful?
Well, in this article, we try to answer if this is possible.
Can We Control Our Thinking?: Insights from Cognitive Science
Many findings from neuroscience has shown that thoughts are generated by non-conscious (not “sub-conscious”) brain systems, meaning that thoughts come about without our personal demand.
One way to categorize thoughts is with regard to their content and flexibility.
Content is what the thought is about whereas flexibility can be simply defined as being able to change the content of the thought.
For example, spontaneous thoughts are very flexible since the content of the thought can change easily, as in the case of dreaming, or mind-wandering.
Therefore, when we talk about controlling our thoughts, we talk about an ability to choose the content of our thinking and keep it in the working memory as long as we need it as well as being able to change this content when we no longer need it.
Thinking about a certain subject (content of the thought) for a certain period of time (flexibility of the thought) and then changing it is achieved through attention.
You might think, then, if we can control our attention, we can control our thoughts.
It is true that some attention can be maintained through cognitive control although not solely by it. It is also under the effect of information from both the inside and outside of the body.
Let’s say you are reading in the library, deeply focused on your reading, and then, you get a text message, and at that second the focus of your attention changes.
In addition to unintentional changes to attention, not being able to change the attention can be the problem as well. One might be focused so much on a certain subject, for example re-playing an event in the head over and over again as in the case of ruminations that he/she cannot attend on anything else.
Can We Control Our Thinking?: Insights from Cognitive Psychotherapies
Many studies have shown that attending one’s own thoughts and trying to control them makes the experience of unwanted thoughts even worse.
The reason is that when we mark a thought as “unwanted” and decide that “we should get rid of it”, we put them in a position of high significance, and this eventually makes them even MORE SALIENT.
This is actually why even though a big proportion of people experience obsessions, only some of them have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Those who appraise their intrusive thoughts as highly significant, having a big secret meaning and must be gotten rid of.
Apparently, construing a thought having such significance is like writing our unwanted thoughts on a paper all caps and bold, “I AM A LOSER”, “I CAN’T DO ANYTHING”, “THEY WON’T LIKE ME”, hanging the paper down from our forehead, not being able to see anything, but only the writing.
Yet, trying to walk around with it all day.
How would it be trying to function in a situation like that?
How would it be completing a work, or starting it?
How would it be talking to people?
How would it be even getting out of bed in the morning?
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that by focusing our attention, we can decide to think about a certain topic such as choosing what to wear.
Well, to some extent…
Yet there will always be distractions from both outside (ex. Your mom is calling your name.), and the inside of the body (ex. Another thought pops up without asking your permission: “I should finish writing this post today.”)
Let’s say that you ignore the distractions as much as you can, and try to focus on choosing what to wear.
Still, the thoughts you have, the images of the clothes in your mind, will be generated by your brain from a much better organized version of your wardrobe in your head.
We are not the ones generating our thoughts, the brain is.
We can only watch them being generated.
The reason why we believe that we are the ones who do the thinking, is only a by-product of the storytelling left-brain interpereter and the self-module.
Lastly, believing that we can, and we must control our thinking is shown to be mostly harmful rather than helpful for dealing with unwanted thoughts.
What Can We Do Then?
1. Watch your thoughts
Instead of believing and responding to every thought your mind presents to you, watch them as if they are leaves moving on the river.
Thoughts just come and go, until we take them as facts and believe them blindly, which make them stick to our minds.
2. Identify your thought about your thoughts
Identify your automatic thought regarding your desire to control your thinking. (ex. “I shouldn’t be thinking about this.” , “Thinking about this means that…” )
3. Challenge that thought!
You can find here an example of how to challenge your automatic thoughts about “controlling your thoughts”.
Additionally, you can find more ideas on how to challenge automatic thoughts here.
Thanks for reading,
Christoff K., et al. (2016). Mind-Wandering as Spontaneous Thought: A Dynamic Framework. Nature.
Clark, David A. (Ed.). (2005). Intrusive Thoughts in Clinical Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment. New York, NY:The Guilford Press.
Oakley David A. and Halligan, Peter W. (2017). Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-Conscious Nature of Being. Frontiers in Psychology.