Friday, October 3, 2008

Don't Think Of Anything

A couple years back professor of cognitive linguistics George Lakoff wrote Don't Think of an Elephant, a book popularizing the concept of frames, or metaphor systems, and showed how Republicans had successfully used them to dominate the past 30 years of political life in this country. 

I think his thesis goes a long way to understanding why it seems we live in two disparate countries and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding American politics. But that's beside the point of this post. 

This post is about the title of Lakoff's book and the challenge it presents. About why it's impossible to not think of something you're instructed not to think about. Here's an excerpt from a post at a neuroscience blog I've just discovered, The Frontal Cortex
The Perverse Imp
What causes this insomniac process? If I had to venture a guess, I'd go with a theory put forth by Dan Wegner, a social psychologist at Harvard. In one experiment, Wegner asked people to not think about a specific thing, like a white bear. He tells them that this is their only goal. So what happens? As you can imagine, everybody starts thinking about white bears. The second we try to suppress a thought that same thought becomes impossible to avoid. We fail to achieve our goal.

Why is it so hard to not think about white bears? The answer returns us to the intricate connection between our consciousness awarness, the part of our brain that establishes and maintains goals, and our unconscious, the part of our brain that gives us feedback about whether or not we are making progress towards our goal. According to Wegner, whenever we try not to think about something, this cortical setup backfires. Because our unconscious brain continually checks to make sure that we are not thinking about white bears (this is our goal), we end up thinking about white bears. Before long, the brain is trapped in a recursive mental loop and we can't think about anything but white bears. We have fallen victim to what Edgar Allen Poe called "The Imp of the Perverse." (Wegner calls this an "ironic process" of mental control.)
Cool stuff, eh? Check out the rest of the blog. It's great.

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