Summary: Proactively avoiding an association that triggers an unwanted thought or memory is more effective than reactive control is more effective when trying to prevent repetitive looping of unwanted thoughts.
When trying to avoid an unwanted thought, people often reactively reject and replace the thought after it occurs. But proactively avoiding an association in the first place can be much more efficient, and help prevent the repetitive looping of unwanted thoughts, according to a new study publishing July 14 in PLOS Computational Biology by Isaac Fradkin and Eran Eldar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.
Trying to stop thinking unwanted repetitive thoughts is a familiar experience to most people. Often, a cue can repeatedly evoke unwanted thoughts or memories.
In addition to the need to expel unwanted associations from their mind, people have to make sure these unwanted associations do not keep coming again and again in an endless loop, and do not become stronger and stronger over time.
In the new study, researchers studied how 80 English-speaking adults came up with new associations to common words. All participants viewed words on a screen and had to type an associated word.
People in one group were told ahead of time they would not receive monetary bonuses if they repeated associations, so they set out to suppress the thoughts of previous words they had input.
Based on reaction times and how effective participants were at generating new associations, the researchers used computational approaches to model how people were avoiding repeated associations.
Most people, they found, use reactive control—rejecting unwanted associations after they have already come to mind.
“This type of reactive control can be particularly problematic,” the authors say, “because, as our findings suggest, thoughts are self-reinforcing: thinking a thought increases its memory strength and the probability that it will recur. In other words, every time we have to reactively reject an unwanted association, it has the potential to become even stronger.
“Critically, however, we also found that people can partially preempt this process if they want to ensure that this thought comes to mind as little as possible.”
“Although people could not avoid unwanted thoughts, they could ensure that thinking an unwanted thought does not increase the probability of it coming to mind again,” Fradkin adds.
“Whereas the current study focused on neutral associations, future studies should determine whether our findings generalize to negative and personally relevant unwanted thoughts.”
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If you don’t let it in, you don’t have to get it out: Thought preemption as a method to control unwanted thoughts
To attain goals, people must proactively prevent interferences and react to interferences once they occur. Whereas most research focuses on how people deal with external interferences, here we investigate the use of proactive and reactive control in dealing with unwanted thoughts.
To examine this question, we asked people to generate an association to each of several repeating cue words, while forbidding the repetition of associations.
Reactively rejecting and replacing unwanted repeated associations after they occur entails slower response times. Conversely, proactive control entails constricting the search space and thus faster response times.
To gain further insight into different potential proactive thought control mechanisms, we augmented the analysis of raw response times with a novel, hypothesis-based, tractable computational model describing how people serially sample associations.
Our results indicate that people primarily react to unwanted thoughts after they occur. Yet, we found evidence for two latent proactive control mechanisms: one that allows people to mitigate the episodic strengthening of repeated thoughts, and another that helps avoid looping in a repetitive thought. Exploratory analysis showed a relationship between model parameters and self-reported individual differences in the control over unwanted thoughts in daily life.
The findings indicate the novel task and model can advance our understanding of how people can and cannot control their thoughts and memories, and benefit future research on the mechanisms responsible for unwanted thought in different psychiatric conditions.
Finally, we discuss implications concerning the involvement of associative thinking and various control processes in semantic fluency, decision-making and creativity.