Why we can’t block out thoughts: Tolstoy’s polar bear

A very curious anecdote circulates about the legendary Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. As a child, his older brother ordered him to sit in a corner and not get up until he had stopped thinking about a polar bear.

As you can imagine, the innocent young Tolstoy spent hours and hours sitting in a corner, and he failed to get the damn polar bear out of his head. Simply put, the more I tried to block out the mental image of this animal, the more intense it became. How overwhelming, right?

    The thought blocking paradox

    Many people are confronted with this paradox on a daily basis, with all kinds of painful thoughts and ideas that can’t get out of your headIt doesn’t matter how hard they try.

    This seems to be the problem: the more we try to “suppress” an idea, paradoxically the more attention we pay to it, And so more time will stay here with us.

    Daniel Wegner’s psychological experiment

    In the 1980s, a social psychologist at Harvard University, Daniel Wegner, coordinated a thought suppression experiment, drawing on the anecdote of Leo Tolstoy.

    You can already imagine the results of the experiment: when we try to suppress or block a thought, a “rebound effect” occurs which makes us think even more about this idea. In other words, aspiring to “control” your thoughts is counterproductive.

    This is why many psychologists criticize the speech of some people without any real training in psychology, who promise people that with their book or course they will be able to “control their thoughts” and stop having disturbing thoughts.

    And it’s paradoxical, even if we manage to distract ourselves enough to stop paying attention to a certain thought, the moment we achieved our success, we would bring thought back to our consciousness. It’s like the silence that, if you name it, breaks.

    And this is it this “polar bear effect” is at the origin of so many psychological problems, Such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, irrational beliefs, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction problems, suicidal ideation …

    The phenomenon is often called “rumination”., When we get into loops with certain thoughts and don’t see ourselves able to break the pattern and think about something else.

      Why is it counterproductive to try to block out thoughts?

      Wegner has given another varied name to this phenomenon: bimodal ironic control mechanism.

      On the one hand, the conscious part of our mind takes care of certain things, while the unconscious part works on many other tasks in the background. That is, on the one hand, we try not to think of anything else, however another part of our mind is engaged in checking that we are getting it right.

      The paradox arises when our subconscious tries to verify that we are not thinking of the polar bear or anything else related to the polar bear. It is essentially impossible. As our mind checks that we are not thinking about “what must not be named”, the forbidden idea emerges when he raises his head towards the conscious part.

      So you feel even more anxious, stranded, helpless, and think you’re doing something wrong so you can’t “control your mind.” Hence the importance of working on the acceptance of certain thoughts and feelings in everyday life, tolerating them even if they are certainly unpleasant, because struggling with ourselves often increases feelings of anxiety and frustration.

      Implications for psychotherapy

      Very often, when people go to their first therapy session and report the reason for their visit, many people say that they would like to ‘stop thinking negative thoughts’ or ‘stop worrying’ or ‘blocking out’. their thoughts ”.

      The job of a psychologist here will be to help the person adapt to their expectations.. We cannot block our thoughts or avoid thinking about unpleasant things or prevent painful memories from resurfacing. Yes, we can work on strategies that allow the person to be functional in their life, with those thoughts included. In this case, the metaphor might be to befriend the polar bear.

      Advertisers and marketers are also aware of this phenomenon

      A popular advertising campaign a few years ago was inspired by this anecdote about the polar bear. A very original ad which, skilfully enough, takes advantage of this ruminant thought phenomenon, and ends brilliantly with a “So you better not look at the red car that comes next”. Here is the brief announcement of the well-known automobile brand, and there is no waste.

      Psychologist in Valence (and online)

      If you’re having trouble with obsessive thinking and you’re not sure how to handle the situation, see a professional as soon as possible. A psychologist can help you take the best action for your specific case.

      If you would like to work with me on a topic in therapy, you can contact me through this page.

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