Why We Cannot Block Thoughts: Tolstoy’s White Bear

Why we cannot block thoughts: Tolstoy's white bear

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

As you can imagine, the innocent young Tolstoy spent hours and hours sitting in the corner, and He couldn’t get the happy white bear out of his head Simply put, the more I tried to block the mental image of that animal, the more intense it became. How overwhelming, right?

The paradox of thought blocking

Many people face this paradox on a daily basis, with all kinds of distressing thoughts and ideas that you can’t get out of your head no matter how hard they try.

That seems to be the problem: The more we try to “suppress” an idea, paradoxically the more attention we are paying to it and therefore the longer it will stay there with us.

Daniel Wegner’s psychological experiment

In the 1980s, a social psychologist at Harvard University, Daniel Wegner, coordinated an experiment on thought suppression, inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s anecdote.

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 that idea. That is, aspiring to “control” your thoughts is counterproductive.

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For this reason, many psychologists criticize the speech of certain people without real training in psychology, who promise people that with their book or their course they will be able to “control their thoughts” and stop having worrying thoughts.

And it is paradoxical, even if we managed to distract ourselves enough to stop paying attention to a certain thought, The moment we realized our achievement, we would drag the thought back into our consciousness It’s like silence, that if you name it, it is broken.

And it is that This “white bear effect” is at the root of many psychological problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, irrational beliefs, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, addiction problems, suicidal ideation…

The phenomenon is often referred to as “rumination.” when we get into loops with certain thoughts, and we are unable to break the pattern and think about something else.

Why is it counterproductive to try to block thoughts?

Wegner gave another colorful name to this phenomenon: bimodal ironic control mechanism

On the one hand, the conscious part of our mind takes care of some things, while the unconscious part works on many other tasks in the background. That is, on the one hand we are trying to think about something else, but another part of our mind is dedicated to checking that we are actually achieving it

The paradox comes when our unconscious mind tries to check that we are not thinking about the white bear or anything else that is related to the white bear. That is, essentially, impossible. At the moment when our mind checks that we are not thinking about “that which must not be named”, the forbidden idea comes to the surface again to the conscious part

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Then you feel even more distressed, failed, helpless, and think you are doing something wrong for not being able to “control your mind.” Hence the importance of working on accepting certain thoughts and sensations on a daily basis, tolerating them even if they are certainly unpleasant, because Fighting against ourselves usually increases feelings of anxiety and frustration.

Implications in psychotherapy

Very often, when people come to their first therapy session and describe their reason for seeking treatment, many people say that what they would like is to “stop having negative thoughts” or “stop worrying” or “block their thoughts.”

The job of a psychologist there will be to help the person adjust their expectations We cannot block thoughts or avoid thinking about unpleasant things or prevent painful memories from surfacing. 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 could be making friends with the white bear.

Advertisers and marketers are also aware of this phenomenon.

A popular advertising campaign from a few years ago was inspired by this white bear anecdote. A very original ad that, quite skillfully, takes advantage of this phenomenon of thought rumination, and masterfully ends with “So you better not look at the red car that comes next.” Here is the brief advertisement of the well-known car brand, and it is not wasted.

Psychologist in Valencia (and online)

Luis Miguel Real

If you are having problems with obsessive thoughts and you don’t know how to handle the situation, consult a professional as soon as possible. A psychologist can help you take the best steps for your specific case.

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