We all have positive thoughts, but are there negative flash thoughts that pop into people's minds? Why do people sometimes have inappropriate or strange thoughts that seem to just pop into their minds? Why does the mind have these unwanted/intrusive thoughts? Are people in control of all their thoughts? If not, why not?
nm904 >> To start, let me introduce Richard Restak. Restak maintains a private medical practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C. where he is also a Clinical Professor of Neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health. He has to date  written 18 books on various aspects of the human brain; two were on The New York Times Best Sellers List. His first bestseller, The Brain (1984), was also the first companion book he wrote for a PBS series. The Mind (1988) was his second bestseller.
nm905 >> This same Richard Restak wrote a review of Daniel M. Wegner's book about unwanted thoughts. Wegner is a professor of Psychology at Harvard University. (9) In this article Restak wrote:
As a child, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski "once challenged his younger brother to remain standing in a corner until he could stop thinking of a white bear. In this homespun experiment, the child learned something important about the human mind: We do not so much control our thoughts as we are controlled by thoughts that we don't want to think.
Indeed, just about all mental illnesses - obsessions, compulsions, depressions, phobias, anxiety reactions, post-traumatic stress disorders, self-control problems such as addiction and eating disorders, schizophrenia and other psychoses - along with just plain everyday emotional distress - are marked by problems in the area of mental control.
There is a paradox here, too; namely, the more effort that one expends not to think something, oftentimes the more difficult it is to expel it from our consciousness."
("Honey of an approach to problems of the mind," review by Richard Restak of the book: White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control, by Daniel M. Wegner, found in Washington Times, July 17, 1989, p. E9)
As Restak said, "we do not so much control our thoughts as we are controlled by thoughts that we don't want to think." And "just about all mental illnesses" are marked with problems of mental control. And in context of Wegner's book, this lack of control is the lack of control of unwanted thoughts. There are many thoughts each day that flash into people's minds: only some are unwanted.
Lately there is evidence that some mental problems have something to do with biochemical imbalances, as in the case of depression. But this factor has nothing to do with specific individualized unwanted thoughts. Depression is a feeling that comes from a certain part of the brain, and is unlike the thought or idea of a white bear. The white bear in the mind of Dostoyevski's brother was a concept, not a feeling. Although depression can be initiated by unwanted thoughts (death of a loved one), depression can just as well be initiated by a biochemical imbalance. There is a difference. The thought of white bear came before Dostoyevski's brother's unwanted thoughts of the white bear; the depression of a biochemical nature comes from an imbalance in the brain first, then the feeling of depression occurs.
Yes, good and positive thoughts enter our minds, from time to time, all day; other times, not so positive thoughts enter our minds. Sometimes these thoughts are like an intermittent breeze: lingering for awhile, disappearing for awhile. But sometimes the thoughts are like a fire that burns in the brain and cannot be extinguished. Like a simmering fire the thoughts may burn every so slightly in the back of people's minds, or the thoughts may rage like a wild fire that incapacitates the individual.
Wegner writes in his book about unwanted thoughts:
Most people report having at least one thought that won't go away. In a study conducted early in this century , one psychologist found that many of the students in his classes admitted to having "fixed ideas" that could not be eliminated.3 In a San Antonio study, when 180 people were asked to write down an unwanted thought, almost every person had one or more to mention.4 They reported that their thought was "distressing," and occurred from once a day to every few minutes. Similarly, researchers in England report that people have "normal" obsessions that parallel in several ways the "abnormal" obsessions individuals seek psychotherapy to eliminate.5 The fact that most people report such thoughts may provide a bit of solace to those of us who think we're odd for worrying. But this fact also indicates that there is indeed a general human problem in the area of mental control.
Unwanted thoughts turn up in a variety of psychological disorders. Of course, they are in center stage when people suffer from obsessions (recurrent unwanted thoughts) or compulsions (recurrent unwanted actions). But having trouble with thoughts that won't go away is characteristic also in many cases of depression, phobic or anxiety reactions, posttraumatic stress disorders, self-control problems such as addictions and eating disorders, and even in psychotic reactions such as schizophrenia. It is not surprising that mental control is rare when people have very severe problems, because the extremes of mental disorder are almost defined in terms of control lapses. However, unwanted thoughts themselves do not define a particular form of psychological disorder. Rather, they occur at all points in the spectrum from normal to abnormal, cutting across different kinds of disorders rather than distinguishing them from one another. (pp. 6-7)
What thoughts do people express the desire to avoid? The contents of such a list will vary, of course, with the time and customs of the people, with their sex and age and habitat. In 1903 in France, for example, the renowned psychiatrist Pierre Janet reported t he obsessions of his patients in five major groups: sacrilegious thoughts, urges to commit crimes, shame about one's behavior, shame about one's body, and hypochondria.21 These obsessions are thoughts that the people were thinking too much, and so qualify as very unwanted. Many of these topics are still favorites today....
(White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control, pp 6-7, 20)
Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., who is a Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical School and Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, writes about unwanted thoughts and says everyone has these crazy thoughts:
Thinking about your thoughts
Three rules are important.
1. Everyone has crazy and disgusting thoughts
2. Thoughts are not the same thing as reality
3. Thought-suppression doesn't work.
Research on people without anxiety disorders shows that almost 90% of them have "bizarre" thoughts---thoughts about contamination, harm, religious impropriety, losing control, sexual "perversion"---you name it, we all have thought about it before." ("Those Damn Unwanted Thoughts," Psychology Today, June 1, 2009)
From a well documented article in the free web encyclopedia called Wikipedia we see that "unwanted thoughts" are called "intrusive thoughts":
Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may become obsessions, are upsetting or distressing, and can be difficult to manage or eliminate.
According to Lee Baer (a specialist at the OCD clinic of Massachusetts General Hospital), intrusive thoughts, urges, and images are of inappropriate things at inappropriate times, usually falling into three categories: "inappropriate aggressive thoughts, inappropriate sexual thoughts, or blasphemous religious thoughts".
Many people experience the type of bad or unwanted thoughts that people with more troubling intrusive thoughts have, but most people are able to dismiss these thoughts. For most people, intrusive thoughts are a "fleeting annoyance." London psychologist Stanley Rachman presented a questionnaire to healthy college students and found that virtually all said they had these thoughts from time to time, including thoughts of sexual violence, sexual punishment, "unnatural" sex acts, painful sexual practices, blasphemous or obscene images, thoughts of harming elderly people or someone close to them, violence against animals or towards children, and impulsive or abusive outbursts or utterances. Such bad thoughts are universal among humans, and have "almost certainly always been a part of the human condition".
When intrusive thoughts occur with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), patients are less able to ignore the unpleasant thoughts and may pay undue attention to them, causing the thoughts to become more frequent and distressing. The thoughts may become obsessions which are paralyzing, severe, and constantly present, and can range from thoughts of violence or sex to religious blasphemy.
The possibility that most patients suffering from intrusive thoughts will ever act on those thoughts is low. Patients who are experiencing intense guilt, anxiety, shame, and upset over these thoughts are different from those who actually act on them. The history of violent crime is dominated by those who feel no guilt or remorse; the very fact that someone is tormented by intrusive thoughts and has never acted on them before is an excellent predictor that they will not act upon the thoughts.
Inappropriate aggressive thoughts
Intrusive thoughts may involve violent obsessions about hurting others or themselves. They can include such thoughts as harming an innocent child, jumping from a bridge, mountain or the top of a tall building, urges to jump in front of a train or automobile, and urges to push another in front of a train or automobile. Rachman's survey of healthy college students found that virtually all of them had intrusive thoughts from time to time, including:
These thoughts are part of being human, and need not ruin the quality of life. Treatment is available when the thoughts are associated with OCD and become persistent, severe, or distressing.
- Causing harm to elderly people
- Imagining or wishing harm upon someone close to one's self
- Impulses to violently attack, hit, harm or kill a person, small child, or animal
- Impulses to shout at or abuse someone, or attack and violently punish someone, or say something rude, inappropriate, nasty or violent to someone.
Inappropriate sexual thoughts
Sexual obsessions involve intrusive thoughts or images of "kissing, touching, fondling, oral sex, anal sex, intercourse, and rape" with "strangers, acquaintances, parents, children, family members, friends, coworkers, animals and religious figures", involving "heterosexual or homosexual content" with persons of any age.
Like other unwanted intrusive thoughts or images, everyone has some inappropriate sexual thoughts at times, but people with OCD may attach significance to the unwanted sexual thoughts, generating anxiety and distress. The doubt that accompanies OCD leads to uncertainty regarding whether one might act on the intrusive thoughts, resulting in self-criticism or loathing.
One of the more common sexual intrusive thoughts occurs when an obsessive person doubts his or her sexual identity. As in the case of most sexual obsessions, sufferers may feel shame and live in isolation, finding it hard to discuss their fears, doubts, and concerns about their sexual identity.
Blasphemous religious thoughts
Blasphemous thoughts are a common component of OCD, documented throughout history; notable religious figures such as Martin Luther and St. Ignatius were known to be tormented by intrusive, blasphemous or religious thoughts and urges. Martin Luther had urges to curse God and Jesus, and was obsessed with images of "the Devil's behind". St. Ignatius had numerous obsessions, including the fear of stepping on pieces of straw forming a cross, fearing that it showed disrespect to Christ. A study of 50 patients with a primary diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder found that 40% had religious and blasphemous thoughts and doubts--a higher number than the 38% who had the obsessional thoughts related to dirt and contamination more commonly associated with OCD. One study suggests that content of intrusive thoughts may vary depending on culture, and that blasphemous thoughts may be more common in men than in women.
According to Fred Penzel, a New York psychologist, some common religious obsessions and intrusive thoughts are:
- sexual thoughts about God, saints, and religious figures such as Mary
- bad thoughts or images during prayer or meditation
- thoughts of being possessed
- fears of sinning or breaking a religious law or performing a ritual incorrectly
- fears of omitting prayers or reciting them incorrectly
- repetitive and intrusive blasphemous thoughts
- urges or impulses to say blasphemous words or commit blasphemous acts during religious services.
["Intrusive Thoughts," Wikipedia, Febrary 9, 2011]
Thoughts, Sometimes Negative
nm906 >> Why do people sometimes get recurring thoughts which they can't seem to control? Why are people unreasonably afraid of some things? Why do we sometimes, in bitter arguments, say offensive things that we do not really mean? Why do people sometimes unreasonably criticize other people? If we do say something good about a person we may, in some situations, add something negative. Our thoughts are sometimes negative. And sadly from these negative thoughts come the confusion and misbehavior that makes for unhappiness. These thoughts, flash into people's minds in a split second, and some of them stay in our minds as unwanted thoughts because of the negative or persistent aspect of them. They are unwanted because of the way they affect us.
Flash Thoughts, Positive or Negative
nm907 >> These unwanted thoughts pop into people's mind in a flash, a split second, and therefore can be called "flash-thoughts." A positive flash-thought is like when a great idea or thought pops into one's mind. A negative unwanted flash-thought is a thought that not only irritates, but may in certain cases lead to or result in behavior that hurts or harms our self or someone else.
But why do people get these flash-thoughts or ones like them? Do our parents teach them to us? Does society teach them to us? And the question must be asked, if people are actually in control of their minds, why do they get these thoughts, or why can't they rid themselves of these thoughts? Why can't people just order their brains to stop these thoughts as they order their brains to move their arms or fingers? Are we in control of our negative thoughts? Not too many positive thoughts are unwanted, if any. Why the unwanted thoughts?
More Examples: Sexual Fantasies Thrusts into the Open
nm908 >> Many of these flash-thoughts may be embarrassing if revealed and so people generally don't talk about them. For example, erotic sexual fantasies were seldom talked about openly in most societies. Yet these fantasies existed and manifested themselves in the underground, in houses of prostitution and in banned pornographic writings, pictures, drawing or paintings. Due to the liberalization of the Western cultures and even in some of the religions, we now see books and magazines published with accounts of these sexual fantasies (Forum magazine; Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden: Women's Sexual Fantasies, or her Forbidden Flowers, and her Beyond My Control: Forbidden Fantasies. etc). The table of contents in Nancy Friday's Beyond My Control: Forbidden Fantasies list fantasies that pertain to: domination, masturbation, incest, exhibitionism/ voyeurism, S&M, threesomes and so forth (found on Amazon's "Look Inside" feature). The readers of Nancy Friday's books did not even know other women had sexual fantasies. Her female reader's thought their sexual fantasies were a manifestation of something wrong with them because they had erotic sexual fantasies. In Friday's own words from her book:
I loved original work [research] and always had sexual fantasies. As I've noted before, when I approached several eminent therapists and psychoanalysts and asked their opinion of my research, I was repeatedly told: 'Women do not have sexual fantasies. Men do.
According to Friday, after reading her books women felt liberated from guilt knowing other women also had them in one form or another:
But "we don't have to act on the fantasies to feel this way [liberated]. Some, fully realized, would become nightmares. Nor share them with our partners" ("Author to Reader" in Beyond My Control).
Why would they be nightmares? The nature of these sexual fantasies can sometimes be unusual and even perverse in a religious sense, or in the sense of decorum or propriety. So where do these sexual fantasies come from? Do we teach our children sexual fantasies? Or do we learn of these fantasies through books? Some of these women according to Friday never saw a pornographic magazine. They came up with these thoughts even though some came from sheltered or conservative religious cultures. So where did these thoughts come from? Where do other thoughts come from that could be called negative or twisted? Some if acted out would be destructive and could land the person to jail. Where do these thoughts come from?
Children and "No"
nm909 >> Children are innocent little creatures, right? But the caretakers of them see that they can be at times cunning, selfish, lying, aggressive, violent, and so forth. Some say this is because they learn from their parents' behavior and their environment. This is true to a certain extent, but it is not the true answer.
nm910 >> When children are very young parents notice that sometimes they are very interested in doing things they were told not to do. The parents say "no" to the child, and the "no" makes the child want to do it even more. Now think about this. Do we teach our children to do what we want them not to do? Do we set them aside each day and tell them, "now Johnny, every time I tell you not to do something, you should do it anyway and take great pleasure in doing what I have told you not to do"? Of course not, we never teach our children to disobey. We teach them to obey us and we back it up with various forms of discipline. Yet, they continue at times to disobey us, even after we discipline them, and they, to judge by their facial expressions, take pleasure in disobeying us. Where do they learn this misbehavior? Who teaches them? We are not talking about children with neurological disorders; we are talking about healthy normal children.
nm911 >> Are we in FULL control of our minds and consequently our behavior? The psychologists, psychiatrists, priests, ministers, rabbis and so forth know people are not in full control of their minds or behavior, and that is the reason for occupations: their patrons come to them for guidance and help. If anyone wishes to move any part of their body, let's say a hand, they merely command their mind to move their hand when and where they want it to move. Only those who are physically impaired or disabled can't control their physical actions. If we are in control of our bodies, why are we not in control of our thoughts and our behavior? Some say we are in full control of our mind. If everyone is in full control of their mind then mankind could easily rid themselves of all falsehood, all guilt, all negativity in all forms. It would be easy to mold our children and our society. But it is not easy, is it? There is something more to all this.
The Dark Side of Man, "Devil within us"
nm912 >> In The Washington Times, June 22, 1989, p. F4, Dr. Richard M. Restak, a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist, an author of "The Brain" and "The Mind," reviewed a book by Ronald Markman and Dominick Bosco, Alone with the Devil: Famous Cases of a Courtroom Psychiatrist, and in the review he writes:
- "Most crimes - even grisly murders - are not committed by mentally ill people, but by people just like you and me." He quotes with approval a statement by Linda Kasabian, a member of the Charles Manson "family," found guilty of the Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders: "I believe that we all have a part of the Devil within us - it's just a matter of bringing it out." Dr. Markman admits, "We all do have a willingness - even an appetite - to kill within us. All it takes is the right combination of factors to raise it to the surface."
This may seem like an extreme statement. But Dr. Restak is not an extremist, but an informed neuropsychiatrist. From others we hear, "The devil made me do it" excuses. Others speak of the "dark" side of man. The religious speak of the spiritual dark side. Mark Twain wanted very much to write the whole truth about his life, but even Mark Twain couldn't bring himself to write about his dark side as the introduction of Mark Twain's new autobiography manifests. He tried to put off his autobiography for 100 years so he could write about his dark side. He never could write the truth about this side of him. (see Introduction, Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 1, Pub.: 2010)
The Imp of the Mind and "Bad Thoughts"
From a review in Publishers Weekly of a review of Lee Baer book, The Imp of the Mind: Exploring the Silent Epidemic of Obsessive Bad Thoughts.
Specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychologist Baer (an associate professor at Harvard) turns the spotlight on a little-known [by the general public] but common form of obsession, "bad thoughts." According to Baer, these "intrusive" thoughts fall into a few basic types: violent, sexual and blasphemous words, and images of a religious nature. Borrowing from Edgar Allan Poe, Baer blames such mental torment on "the imp of the perverse," that little devil inhabiting all human minds, cross-culturally and across time, "who makes you think the most inappropriate thoughts at the most inappropriate times." For most people, the imp proves no more than a "fleeting annoyance" most of the time, but for Baer's patients, these impish thoughts create extreme fear, guilt and worry. Attempting to suppress them only makes them stronger, leading the afflicted to avoid places, people and situations that provoke them. A new mother who obsessively thinks about harming her infant, for example, may increasingly avoid daily caretaking activities. Tending to be perfectionist and "overly conscientious," these people are highly unlikely ever to act on their bad thoughts, Baer explains. [From Publishers Weekly Jan. 15, 2000]
Professor Lee Baer calls these intrusive thoughts, "the imp of the perverse." But since the 1970s I've been calling these thoughts, the thoughts of the "other-mind."
nm913 >> Considering the above information, other studies, my observation and others' observations, since the early 1970s:
I have come to the conclusion that there is something like another mind in our brain feeding thoughts to our brain, many times unwanted thoughts. I call this the "other-mind."
The other-mind is what I call the phenomena of those unwanted and many times negative thoughts that seem to annoy peoples' minds. Scientists do not know why people have them or how people get these unwanted thoughts, just like they don't know why there is gravity or how gravity works: science can only describe and list the unwanted thoughts and describe gravity in words or through mathematics.
Granted that in certain cases neurological disabilities or chemical imbalances can cause or lead to problems pertaining to mind and thoughts, but still the question remains: why don't these disabilities and chemical imbalances cause positive mental thoughts?
Lost of Control
Even though I believe that everyone has the "other-mind" feeding everyone unwanted thoughts, most people do not carry out these intrusive thoughts because most have some control over their behavior. But some do lose control. We see it every day in our newspapers. One example appears on CNN's web site today:
(CNN Feb. 12, 2011) -- An unemployed New Yorker fatally stabbed three people, slashed at least four others, hit and killed one man with a car and hijacked two vehicles before being wrestled to the ground early Saturday while trying to break into the cab of a subway car, polic said.
Maksim Gelman, 23, was arrested aboard a north-bound train in Manhattan around 9 a.m. Saturday, 28 hours after he allegedly began a spree across three New York City boroughs, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.
"It's so horrendous and bizarre," Kelly told reporters Saturday afternoon. "We have no reason that we can give you as to why he did this."
When we come to understand that the unwanted thoughts of the "other-mind" cannot harm us, unless we allow it, and that by knowing that these thoughts do not radiate from our very selves, the shame and guilt can be mitigated. Also others with these unwanted thoughts can be understood and empathized with in a much more appropriate, if not tolerate manner.
Back to Home Page
(c) Copyright 1971-2016 by Walter R. Dolen