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You would want to control what people are thinking? You can’t even control your own thoughts

Posted April 30, 2019

Mind control is a fascinating subject. We would love to be able to change what others are thinking just by clicking our fingers. However, we do not even have full control of our own thoughts. Scientists from the University of New South Wales found that those people who are generally good at supressing certain thoughts still have them at some level in their minds.

Don’t think about a red apple. Why are you thinking about a red apple when we told you not to? Image credit: Abhijit Tembhekar via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

If we told you not to think about a red apple, what would you do? Would you struggle not to think about it? Or can you just turn off those thoughts at will and not even think about a big red fruit hanging mid-air in front of your face? Most people cannot not think about something that easily.

Scientists proved that by presenting participants with one of six written cues: “red apple,” “red chili,” “red tomato”, “green broccoli,” “green cucumber” or “green lime”. People were instructed not to think about these things and to indicate if they do anyway. Then they were presented with red-green images in binocular rivalry and had to say which colour is dominant. Of course, people struggled not to think about a thing they were asked to think about. And even when they succeeded, they often indicated the colour that was mentioned in the cues.

Supressing thoughts is extremely difficult. Even when people managed that, they manifested themselves in red-green image test. This suggests that sensory trace of visual thoughts still form when thoughts are being supressed. Even if you think you are not thinking about a red apple, on some level you have it registered in your brain. It could be that people are not aware of their own thoughts at times.

So is this it? We cannot control our own thoughts no matter what we do? Not exactly. In another experiment participants were told to use a distraction strategy to avoid those thoughts. And it worked – the bias in the test of red-green images in binocular rivalry was gone. Scientists say that this information could become useful in fighting addictions someday. Professor Joel Pearson, lead author of the study, said: “using brute force to not think about something – that cigarette or that drink – simply won’t work because the thought is actually there in our brains. This discovery changes the way we think about thoughts of desire and suggests unconscious thoughts can emerge and drive our decisions and behaviour”.

Thoughts are involuntary most of the time. You cannot stop thoughts from forming and you cannot predict what thought you are going to have next. It is fascinating, but at the same time – very natural. By understanding our own thought process we could finally understand ourselves better.


Source: UNSW

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