Can unwanted thoughts be controlled? New research says, yes

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Controlling unwanted thoughts can be difficult for many people. Alpgiray Kelem/Getty Images
  • Most people have unwanted thoughts from time to time.
  • Some, called intrusive thoughts, may be linked to psychiatric disorders.
  • A new study has found that most people use reactive thought control to deal with unwanted thoughts once they occur.
  • Proactive control — to prevent the thought from happening in the first place — may be more effective, but study participants found it very difficult to do.

We all have unwanted thoughts sometimes. How many times have you tried to focus on work, only to find your mind wandering about what you’re going to eat that night, or remembered to turn off the stove?

For most people, unwanted thoughts are just that: distractions that interrupt our concentration. But some people feel intrusive thoughts it can be disturbing and scary.

“Unwanted thoughts are very common, we all experience them to some degree, and their persistence can be a symptom of many psychiatric disorders.”

– Dr. Lauren Wadsworth, Senior Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center School of Medicine and Dentistry and Founding Director of the Genesee Valley Psychology and OCD Clinic in Rochester, NY.

A new study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published in Computational Biology PLOS, found that reactive control — recognizing the thought, then bringing attention back to something else — can help people prevent a thought from immediately coming to mind. However, complete proactive control, which prevents thought from reaching consciousness in the first place, is much more difficult to achieve.

Dr. Wadsworth said Medical News Today:

“The investigators used a creative task in an attempt to reduce the occurrence of certain thoughts. [They] found significant effects that could inform future skill development for psychiatric disorders. However, the thoughts studied in this experiment were not emotionally valued, which limits generalizability.

In the study, 80 paid volunteers were given a free association task with verbal cues. Participants viewed 60 word clues, one at a time, on a computer screen. They had to write an associated word in response to each word. For example, if the word presented was “table”, they could write “chair”.

Each of the 60 cue words was presented 5 times, in random order.

The researchers divided the participants into 2 equal groups. The control group was allowed to reuse the same associated word when cue words were repeated. People in the test group had to think of a new associated word each time a cue word was repeated. They were told that they would not receive any monetary bonus for repeated associations.

They timed how long it took each participant to respond to each cue. To reduce variation due to typing speed, respondents had to press the spacebar when thinking of a related word; they then had to start typing within 1300 ms. If they didn’t start typing in time, the attempt was aborted.

To measure the associative strength of their word, participants were asked how much each word reminded them of the cue word on a scale of 0 “not at all” to 10 “a lot”.

Dr. Isaac Fradkin, postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study, told DTM:

“In this context — repeated associations (eg, thinking ‘chair’ for the second time and so on) are undesirable thoughts; they distract the participant from the goal – to find a new association.

Subjects in the test group who had been prompted to suppress using the same association with a repeated cue only used the same association 6% of the time compared to 50.5% of the responses in the control group.

As expected, they took longer to find a new associated word compared to when the cue was a repeat. The researchers report that this was consistent with the reactive control.

The researchers then excluded associations that participants judged to have the strongest association with the signal (because these would have been the most difficult to remove) and focused on response times for signals and associations that had been weaker the first time.

To determine how people avoided repeated associations, the researchers used a computer model based on reaction times and how strongly they recorded previous associative strength. They found that lower associative strength increased reaction time compared to the control group, but gave faster reaction times than when associative strength was strong, showing the use of proactive thought suppression.

The researchers found that reactive thought control would delay reaction time because the person would have to reject the repeated association word and think of another. Proactive control would completely avoid the unwanted thought (repeated association), thus speeding up reaction time.

“Usually after someone first writes ‘president’ as an association, it gets stronger and is therefore even more likely to come to mind in the future. We found that participants were able to reduce this self-reinforcing effect of thoughts. This type of control can be described as “proactive” because it makes the unwanted thought less likely to come to mind in the first place. »

— Dr. Isaac Fradkin

Suppressing unwanted thoughts has been shown to be counterproductive and can lead to an increase in these thoughts.

Participants in the suppression test group tended to move faster once they rejected a repeated association once, preventing them from getting stuck in a loop with the same repeated association.

This study suggests that distraction, or getting people to think about something else, may be more effective at reducing unwanted thoughts.

“[T]The authors imply that the results of their study suggest that we can stop thoughts before they arise, however, their task involved suppression on the part of the participant, which I believe means that individuals still use responses behavioral responses to thoughts to reduce their future occurrence – instead of engaging in a passive process that reduces the occurrence of the thought.

— Dr. Lauren Wadsworth

Dr. Fradkin advised:

“The challenge is to accept the fact that [when] unwanted thoughts may occasionally (or even frequently) come to mind – “let them go”, without fighting them too much or giving them too much attention. We need more research to examine how the results of our study can be used to give actionable advice.

“Nevertheless, our study has an important and optimistic implication: our brain has the natural ability to keep unwanted thoughts from spiraling. So just knowing that a particular thought is undesirable or incompatible with our current goals might be enough to ensure that even when we have that thought, it doesn’t cause it to increase in strength as much as it might have.” he added.

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