Imagine a world where you can erase the memory of a painful break-up associated with your favourite song, or an embrassing incident that haunts your mind everytime you look at an empty table top and any form of clear alcohol?
Turns out, you don’t need special superpowers to achieve all that. If a new study is to be believed, it is possible to train your brain into shutting down these unwanted thoughts before they’re even formed through some serious mental exercise!
The study, published in PLOS Computational Biology, claims that thought preemption can be used as a method to control unwanted thoughts. It did so by analysing the difference between reactive and proactive control.
Reactive control, which is the most common phenomenon, is when we get an unwanted thought in our brain and consciously try to reject or suppress it. Proactive control, on the other hand, is when we stop the unwanted thoughts from entering our brains in the first place.
To understand this better, take the Ironic Process Theory or, as it’s most commonly known, the ‘white bear problem’. It is a psychological process where deliberately supressing certain thoughts cause them to surface more prominently in your brain. One of the most popular examples of this is how when someone actively tries to not think of a white bear and an image of a polar bear props up in their heads every single time.
“Thoughts are self-reinforcing: thinking a thought increases its memory strength and the probability that it will recur,” reads the study, “In other words, every time we have to reactively reject an unwanted association, it has the potential to become even stronger. Critically, however, we also found that people can partially preempt this process if they want to ensure that this thought comes to mind as little as possible.”
What the study is referring to here is increasing the levels of proactive control in our brains, something the researchers attempted with a group of 80 volunteers.
Since proactive control is not common and difficult to investigate, the study simplified the process by getting the subjects to focus on word associations.
The subjects were asked to come up with new word associations for 60 common words as they were displayed one by one on a screen. Each word was randomly presented five non-consecutive times. The participants were divided into two groups, where the first group was told that they wouldn’t receive any monetary reward if they repeated any word association, like the word ‘chair’ with ‘table’, while the other was not given any indication about a monetary reward at all.
Through this, the researchers discovered that while most people relied on reactive control to not repeat the associations, it became easier to weaken the connection between certain thoughts, if the volunteers really put their minds to it.
“Although people could not avoid unwanted thoughts, they could ensure that thinking an unwanted thought does not increase the probability of it coming to mind again,” wrote Isaac Fradkin,a psychologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, and the co-author of the study.
In case of the first group, their initial association of words, for example ‘table’ with ‘chair’, became an unwanted thought and the participants needed to suppress this thought from even forming in their brain the next time they saw the word ‘table’ on the screen, helping them exercise proactive control on this level.
Through a computation model, the reserachers were able to analyse reaction time and responses to conclude that it is possible to switch your brains from a reactive to a proactive thought control system with practice and intensive training.
The study, however, doesn’t mention any concrete methods of training that could be used to achieve this state, but presents an optimistic outlook of it being achievable at least. This could be a new approach to manage mental distress and issues on a smaller level.