Repressing our thoughts/feelings

Posted on February 7, 2015

Photo: flickr

For a recent San Francisco State University study, participants were asked to look at a commonplace image but avoid thinking of the word that corresponds with the image or how many letters are in that word. The task may seem simple, but the study found that when presented with ?, for example, nearly 80 percent of people will automatically conjure up the word "sun" and about half will quietly count to three.

This nifty little cognitive trick is not only amusing -- the study also reveals that the stream of consciousness is more susceptible to external stimuli than had previously been proven. This research is the first demonstration of two thoughts in the stream of consciousness being controlled externally and against participants' will.

"We triggered with our experiment not one but two different kinds of unintentional thoughts, and each thought required a substantial amount of processing," Morsella said. "We think that this effect reflects the machinery of the brain that gives rise to conscious thoughts. When you activate the machinery -- and it can be activated even by being told not to do something -- the machinery cannot help but deliver a certain output into consciousness."

"When people have a thought they can't control, this machinery may be at work," Morsella said. "We're learning not only that the brain does work this way, but that unfortunately, under most circumstances, the brain should work like this."

While it may seem counterintuitive, Morsella argues that the mind's inability to shut out unwanted thoughts is a good thing in most cases. "A lot of things that seem bad about the brain reflect part of its overall architecture, which was selected through evolution because, in most cases, it is adaptive," Morsella said.

Take guilt, for example. Just like most people can't stop themselves from subvocalizing the word "sun" in response to an image of one, it can also be difficult to repress negative feelings after doing something wrong. "If you could override these kinds of thoughts, it would not be adaptive," Morsella explained. "There is a reason why we feel guilt: to change future behavior. If you could snap your fingers and not feel guilty about something, guilt would cease to have a functional role."


Source material from San Francisco State University