(ORDO NEWS) — For most of us, controlling unwanted thoughts isn’t easy, but new research describes an approach each of us can use to limit the number of thoughts that come to mind uninvited.
The study looks at the differences between reactive and proactive control. Reactive control is when we accept an unwanted thought and try to reject or suppress it; proactive control is when we try to stop an unwanted thought from occurring.
Think of it like the classic polar bear problem. If someone tells you not to think about the polar bear, well, you end up thinking about the polar bear.
Reactive control means that you will try to distract yourself from thoughts of the polar bear whenever they cross your mind. However, it has been suggested that our brains can potentially stop a thought from reaching consciousness before we need to distract ourselves from it, or proactive control.
How our brain exercises proactive control, and whether it exercises it at all, remains unclear and difficult to understand. The researchers of the new study decided to simplify this process by focusing on word associations.
Using the word association task, the researchers found that most people rely on reactive control – but the data also showed that it’s possible to loosen connections with certain thoughts if you try.
“This type of reactive control can be especially problematic,” the researchers say. “Our results show that thoughts are self-reinforcing: thinking about a thought increases its memory strength and the likelihood that it will repeat itself.”
“In other words, every time we are forced to reactively reject an unwanted association, it can become even stronger. However, very importantly, we also found that people can partially preempt this process if they want this thought to come to mind as soon as possible. less frequently.”
The researchers asked 80 volunteers to come up with new associations for 60 common words as they appeared one after the other on a screen. (Ultimately, only 40 volunteers were used in the study.) Each word was shown randomly five times.
Participants were divided into two groups: in one of them they were warned in advance that they would not be paid a monetary reward if they repeated any associations, and in the other there was no such instruction.
In the case of the first group, the initial association – for example, “table” connected to “chair” – eventually turned into an undesirable thought. Participants were required to enter a new association with the word “table” the next time it appeared, even if “chair” was their main thought.
Using a computational model to analyze reaction times and responses, the researchers concluded that volunteers who tried to avoid repetition mostly thought about previously used words and then rejected them thus reactive control.
However, if we dig deeper, the differences between the two groups showed that people in the group who tried not to repeat the same words had some success in doing so – a kind of proactive control. These participants did not fall into the trap of repeating the same words over and over.
“Although people could not avoid unwanted thoughts, they could make sure that the thought of an unwanted thought did not increase the likelihood that it would occur again,” says psychologist Isaac Fradkin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel.
The repeated words in this experiment can be interpreted as repeated thoughts in a more general sense. Take, for example, painful memories of a breakup: It’s possible that we could actively train ourselves to at least stop these thoughts so they don’t get stronger and more intractable each time they come back.
Unfortunately, the current study provides no clues on how to train our brains to transition from reactive to proactive thought control the evidence only suggests that this is possible to a limited extent when we do it intentionally.
While the researchers stuck to neutral word associations rather than unwanted thoughts that trigger anxiety or are related to any mental health issues, this is the direction that future research may take – perhaps in the future they will offer ideas for different therapeutic approaches.
“While the current study has focused on neutral associations, future research should determine whether our findings extend to negative and personally significant unwanted thoughts,” says Fradkin.
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