If James Allen was right, then we are in big trouble.
He said, “A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”
We are in big trouble because we are never in control of our thoughts. Don’t believe me? Try this simple experiment:
Whatever you do, don’t think of a white bear. Go on, close your eyes, relax, but don’t think of a white bear.
So, what happened? Most likely, you were overwhelmed by thoughts of a white bear. The white bear paradox is just one example of how little control we have over our minds. If thoughts define our character and we have no control over what thought arises next, does it mean that we have no control over who we become?
Until recently answers to such questions remained under the umbrella of philosophy or religion. However, recent advances in neuroimaging technologies has changed the paradigm.
Three Types of Thinking
“While it sometimes feels that all of our thoughts are an incessant stream of useless blabber, the reality is that our most useful thoughts are usually silent.
There are three types of thought that our brains produce: insightful (used for problem solving), experiential (focused on the task at hand), and incessant (chatter).
Those types are so distinctively different from each other that they occur in different parts of our brain.”~ Solve for Happy by Chief Business Officer for Google X
Insightful thinking helps us to do long range planning and problem solving. Experiential thinking brings our attention onto our senses such as our sight, sound and feel. Both these types of thinking are crucial in navigating the real-world. Incessant thinking, however, serves no utility. It creates unnecessary suffering. When we engage in incessant thinking attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment. It will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations. Incessant thinking is also correlated with mental disorders like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.
To function well in the modern world we need to distinguish between what’s working for us from what’s working against us. Experiential and insightful thinking are working for us. Incessant thinking is working against us.
“Your brain produces thoughts, as a biological function, to serve you. And discovering that each of those types of thoughts happens in completely separate brain regions means that we can be trained to use one type more than the other.
We need a lot of attention to the present when we perform tasks, and we also need problem solving. Those are very useful functions.
What we don’t really need is the narrative component of thought, the useless, endless chatter — the part that makes us feel a bit crazy and keeps us trapped in suffering.
Specific elements may differ, but the endless stream of chatter is something we all share. It worries us about what is yet to come; it belittles us; it disciplines us; it argues, fights, debates, criticizes, compares, and rarely ever stops to take a breath. Day after day we listen as it talks and talks.” ~ Solve for Happy by Chief Business Officer for Google X
Mechanics of incessant thinking
When we are triggered by an emotionally charged thought, it tends to stay in our mind for a long time. If you look closely, you can observe the perverse strategy by which it stays in our mind:
We repeat the same thoughts repeatedly like a crazy person!
The reality is that if you walk down the street almost everyone you see are talking to themselves in their head. They’re constantly judging everything that they see. They’re playing back movies of things that happened to them yesterday. They’re living in fantasy worlds of what’s going to happen tomorrow. They’re just pulled out of base reality.
Let’s be honest, if we started voicing the thoughts in our head, we would be locked up in a mental institution. But when we do it in the privacy of our mind, it somehow seems normal.
“Imagine that you are in a public place and happen to see a stranger locate his own lost sunglasses. He exclaims, as you might, “There they are!” and snatches them from the tabletop. A twinge of embarrassment often passes through all parties in such moments, but when the utterance is confined to a short phrase and occasioned by such an innocuous event, the speaker has done nothing out of the ordinary and bystanders are not yet gripped by fear.
Imagine, however, if this person continued to address himself out loud: “Where did you think they were, you idiot? You’ve been wandering around this building for ten minutes. Now I’m going to be late for my lunch with Julie, and she’s always on time!”
The man need not speak another word to secure our eternal mistrust of his faculties. And yet the condition of this person is no different from our own — these are precisely the thoughts we might think in the privacy of our minds.”~Waking Up by Sam Harris PhD — Cognitive Neuroscience
Stepping out of the trance
Unless we break the trance of incessant thinking, we will forever remain trapped in our minds. However, it is not as hard as you might think. For most of us, switching modes of thinking is natural, we do it all the time.
“Imagine, for instance, that someone has made you very angry — and just as this mental state seems to have fully taken possession of your mind, you receive an important phone call that requires you to put on your best social face. Most people know what it’s like to suddenly drop their negative state of mind and begin functioning in another mode. Of course, most then helplessly grow entangled with their negative emotions again at the next opportunity.
Become sensitive to these interruptions in the continuity of your mental states. You are depressed, say, but are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read. You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else — something that no longer supports your current emotion — allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.” ~Waking Up by Sam Harris PhD — Cognitive neuroscience
If we can learn to interrupt mindless thinking, we can break out of the shackles of negative loop. The problem is not thinking. It is thinking without knowing that your thinking. The problem is incessant thinking. It is mindlessness.
A-B-C approach was created by Dr. Albert Ellis to help patients break out of incessant thinking. It was then adapted by Dr. Martin Seligman who is considered as the father of positive psychology. According to Seligman, negative loop has 3 components
- Adversity: We encounter Adversity when we face an unfavorable event.
- Beliefs: We then create narratives about the adversity which becomes our Beliefs.
- Consequences: These beliefs then influence what we do next, so they become Consequences.
Here’s an example — you yell at your assistant because she forgot to print a key report before your meeting (Adversity). You then think, “I’m a really lousy boss” (Belief). You then perform poorly during your meeting, because your self confidence has plummeted (Consequences).
The key point occurs between adversity and belief. When you encounter adversity, the narrative you create drives your beliefs. If you let incessant thinking drive the narrative it will always drift towards negativity, it is just the way our minds are wired. The key for breaking the negative loop is to interrupt the mechanism of belief formation. There are two ways to interrupt our habitual incessant thinking:
- Switch to insightful thinking
- Switch to experiential thinking
Switch to insightful thinking
Martin Seligman recommends “disputation” as a tool to switch to insightful mode of thinking. When you encounter an adversity and notice negative beliefs forming, you need to argue with yourself. In particular, you look for the mistaken assumptions. Here is an example:
Adversity: A colleague criticized my product idea in front of the team during our weekly meeting.
Belief: She’s right; it was a dumb idea. I don’t have much of an imagination, and now the entire team can see how uncreative I am. I should never have spoken up!
Consequences: I felt stupid and didn’t speak up for the rest of the meeting. I don’t want to attend any of the other team meetings this week, and have already made an excuse to avoid tomorrow’s meeting.
Disputation: I’m blowing this out of proportion. My colleague had every right to criticize my idea; it was nothing personal, and her critique was spot on. She even commended my creative thinking once the meeting was over. All I need to do is think my ideas through a bit better next time.
Switch to experiential thinking
However, reasoning with incessant thoughts often just leads to digging a deeper hole of negativity.
Switching your mind into experiential mode of thinking is a more powerful alternative. By focussing on our senses, our breath, smell, touch, sound and sight we turn off the incessant thinking.
Dr. Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard University, is regarded as the pioneer of mindfulness in the West. According to her research, we can shift our focus by flooding the mind with things that it can’t evaluate, or judge — things it can only observe. Here’s how she describes it:
Direct your attention outside yourself. Observe the light in the room, pay attention to whatever is on your desk, catch that smell of coffee percolating in the kitchen, notice the wood grain on the table, or listen to the distant sounds of cars in the street. Don’t let anything go unobserved. Notice every tiny detail around you. This is what you used to do as a newborn child. Just observe.
I sometimes use a modified version of this approach where I start naming objects in my mind as I notice them:
Desk, coffee, kitchen, wood, table, car, air conditioner, cool air….
And before you know it, the incessant thought vanishes. Because the brain is terrible at multitasking, it needs to stop all previous thinking to absorb new information. If the new information is processed in a different area of the brain, it is unlikely you will fall back into incessant thinking.
When you first start training your mind in this manner, it may seem difficult to get rid of incessant thought. The moment you stop noticing things, your brain brings back the previous thought. However, with enough practice, you can train yourself to break out of incessant thinking. You can eventually stare at incessant thoughts and say, “That sounds irrational and harmful! Go away and bring me something worthwhile to think about.”
The ability to break the loop of incessant thinking is not simply a technique for stress reduction. It can transform your life.
“Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are aspects of your life that seem in need of improvement — when your goals are unrealized, or you are struggling to find a career, or you have relationships that need repairing.
But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.
If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life — you won’t enjoy any of it.” ~ Waking Up by Sam Harris PhD — Cognitive Neuroscience
Anticipating awful things in the future or ruminating about moments from the past is neither useful nor instructive. This prolonged extension of pain is a serious bug in our system. Left unchecked it will consume our minds, shape our character and turn us into someone we would never want to become. Before long there it will open up a humiliating gap between our actual self and our desired self.
Upgrading our character starts with upgrading our thinking. Don’t give incessant thinking the power to control you and define who you are. Our mind should be a servant and a tool, not our master.