After a breakup, you might think you’re fine until you drive by that one street corner, meet a mutual friend, or hear a certain love song on the radio. No matter how much you want to stop thinking about that person, everything is a reminder of the relationship. Aside from erasing entire chunks of your memory, á la Jim Carrey’s character in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is it possible to banish unwanted thoughts?
The short answer is: maybe. But whether this makes sense in the long term is more complicated.
People’s thoughts are far less focused — and under far less control — than most people realize, said Joshua Magee, a clinical psychologist and founder of Wellness Path Therapy who has conducted research on unwanted thoughts, images, and drives in mental disorders. In a famous 1996 study in the journal Cognitive interference: theories, methods and insights (opens in new tab) By study author Eric Klinger, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, participants jotted down all their thoughts for a day. On average, people reported more than 4,000 individual thoughts. And those thoughts were fleeting—they lasted no more than five seconds on average.
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“Thoughts go up and down all the time, and a lot of us don’t realize it,” Magee said. In the 1996 study, a third of these thoughts seemed to appear completely out of nowhere. It’s normal to have thoughts that feel disturbing, Magee added. In a 1987 to learn (opens in new tab) conducted by Klinger and colleagues, people found 22% of their thoughts strange, unacceptable, or wrong — for example, you might imagine chopping off your finger while cooking or dropping your baby while carrying him to his crib.
In some situations it makes sense to suppress these unwanted thoughts. For example, during an exam or a job interview, you don’t want to be distracted by the thought that you’re going to fail. On a flight, you probably don’t want to think about the plane crashing. And there’s evidence that it’s possible to suppress those thoughts, Magee said.
In a 2022 study in the journal PLOS Computational Biology (opens in new tab)a team of Israeli researchers showed 80 paid volunteers a series of slides with different nouns. Each noun was repeated on five different slides. As they looked at the slides, participants wrote down a word they associated with each noun — for example, “road” in response to the word “car.” Researchers told one group that they weren’t paid for words they repeated. Another group could repeat as many nouns as they wanted. Using this method, the researchers wanted to mimic what happens when someone hears this love song on the radio and desperately tries to think about anything other than their ex-boyfriend.
Results showed that when participants saw each noun a second time, it took them longer than controls to come up with a new association — “tire” rather than “road,” for example — suggesting they were remembering their first answer came to mind before they replaced it. Their responses were particularly delayed for words that they rated as “strongly associated” with the keyword the first time. However, participants speeded up each time they looked at the same slide, suggesting their association between the cue and their initial reaction — the thought they were trying to avoid — weakened.
“We found no evidence that people can completely avoid unwanted thoughts,” the study’s lead author Isaac Fradkin, who conducted the research as a psychologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Live Science. But the findings suggest exercise may help people avoid a particular thought, added Fradkin, who is now a fellow at the Max Planck University College London Center for Computational Psychiatry and Aging Research.
Not everyone agrees that a random words slideshow is a great way to find out how people suppress emotion-laden thoughts Medical news today (opens in new tab) reported. And other research suggests that avoiding thoughts can backfire. “When we suppress a thought, we’re sending a message to our brain,” Magee said. This effort marks the thought as something to be feared. “Essentially, we make these thoughts more powerful by trying to control them.” A 2020 analysis in the Journal Perspectives in Psychology (opens in new tab) of 31 different thought-suppression studies found that thought-suppression works in the short-term. While participants tended to be successful on thought-suppression tasks, the avoided thought surfaced in their mind more often after completing the task.
In the end, it might make more sense to be mindful of those unwanted thoughts and just wait for them to pass, rather than avoiding them — just like the thousands of other thoughts that run through your head every day, Fradkin said. “We can allow those thoughts to just be in our heads, not hold on to them too much, and not try to fight them.”