May 14, 2022

Involuntary Thoughts

A bunch of people wrote in asking for some clarification on my message from a couple days ago about not deciding what to think.

The following reply from fellow list member Marjan Venema was fairly representative of the overall feedback, so I thought I’d use it to answer for everyone (shared with permission):

Marjan wrote:

Interesting, but how do you decide what you expose yourself to?

I do it by noticing how I feel after exposure to something. If I feel energized, I will do more of it in the future. If I feel drained, I will do less of it in the future.

A good example for me would be Instagram. Every single time I opened Instagram, I’d get sucked in for at LEAST 15 minutes of mindless scrolling (often more) and afterward, I’d feel like crap. So I deleted the app.

(NOTE: I feel the same way about virtually all ad supported media, TV and radio in particular.)

Are you saying you can’t change your thoughts? Or that you can only do that through what you expose yourself to?

I’m saying you don’t generally decide what thought enters your mind next.

In fact, you’d need to be pretty self-aware and disciplined to have any control at all over what thought enters your head next.

It’s much easier to put yourself in situations that automatically make you think thoughts that have a positive effect on your well-being.

And what if I have already exposed myself to multiple competing thoughts?

I’m not talking about ideas or opinions or beliefs. I know people can change those. I’m talking about the next thought that enters your mind at any given moment. The seemingly endless internal conversation. Your inner monologue.

You can direct your inner monologue in times of self-awareness but it seems to me that people’s default behavior is for their inner monologue to bounce around like a pinball in reaction to whatever stimulus they’re exposed to at the moment.

Can I only change my thoughts to the last one? Can I go back and forth? In which case I can certainly change my opinion. Isn’t that the same, or at least similar, to changing my thoughts?

I think changing what one is exposed to will automatically change their thoughts (i.e., inner monologue), which in turn can have downstream effects on one’s ideas, opinions, beliefs, and ultimately actions.

Oh, and yes, I do believe I can decide my thoughts.

Let’s flip this around to something I hope will be easier to accept and therefore more useful...

Rather than claiming “you don’t decide what to think,” I’ll assert that at least some of your thoughts are not created by your conscious mind.

I think I can prove this with an experiment...

For the next three minutes, don’t think of anything.

. . . . .

. . . .

. . .

. .


Could you do it?

If not, where did the thoughts come from?

Some thoughts (I would argue most thoughts) just "pop into" one’s head with no conscious effort whatsoever.

In fact, it’s exceedingly difficult to stop thoughts from popping into one’s head.

These are the thoughts you didn’t decide to think.

(And I betcha most people have a LOT of them, but I’m happy to be corrected on this point).

I have frequently done so by imagination and “mere” desire for change. Often merely by asking the question: if this weren’t the case, what else could be? Or are you implying that imagination is limited by what one was exposed to?

I would say imagination can be limited (or enhanced) by lots of things, including what one is exposed to.

How then has any deliberate innovation come about? I’d say by unwillingness to accept the status quo or the dictates of what one was exposed to up till now.

I’m not arguing that one can’t direct one’s thinking. I’m saying that our minds generate a ton of thoughts that we didn’t consciously ask for, and that this can sometimes be a bad thing.

Here’s the thing...

At best, your useless “involuntary thoughts” can be very distracting. At worst, they can send you into a mental death spiral.

The easiest way I know of to avoid bad involuntary thought patterns is to be very intentional about what you expose yourself to.