While it may feel as though your conscious thoughts are insulated from your surroundings, a recent study conducted by researchers at San Francisco State University has found otherwise. The study asked that participants look at an image, without thinking of the word associated with the image, or how many letters were in the word.
While this seems like a simple task, 80 percent of participants who were presented with the image of a sun automatically thought of the word “sun,” and 50 percent of participants silently counted to three (the number of letters in the word “sun”).
This research is the first to demonstrate that not one, but two streams of thought can be determined by an outside influence, even against the participants’ will. This suggests that we have far less control over our internal thought processes than most of us realize.
According to study co-author and professor of psychology Ezequiel Morsella, our thoughts appear to be tightly connected to the environment – much more so than previously understood.
The experiment triggered two types of unintentional thoughts, both of which required extensive processing. According to Morsella, this proves that the brain’s machinery in charge of conscious thinking can be activated and influenced by an outside source, even when a person is actively trying to suppress the effect.
Interestingly, the study found that the effect was more pronounced of shorter words. For example, when asked not to subvocalize (speak in the mind) the number of letters in a word associated with a certain picture, 50 percent of participants counted when the word was three letters. This dropped off to just more than 10 percent when the word was six or more letters. This suggests that our unconscious can’t count more than four or five.
This research could have significant implications for the study of disorders that cause obsession. While for most people the mind’s susceptibility to unwanted thoughts is both normal and healthy, this research may help psychologists develop new treatments for patients afflicted with both obsessive and anxiety disorders.
Their study also challenges the notion that “in between stimulus and response, there is a moment of choice.”
I personally don’t care if there is a moment of choice between stimulus and response. I have a different approach to conscious intervention. Even though the outside world can have its way with our thoughts, there is still much we can do. I share one goofy yet very effective self-intervention in this post.