Science just found the best way to rid the mind of pesky, intrusive thoughts

The human mind is as essential as it is enigmatic. It’s hard to argue that our brains aren’t our biggest asset; mankind’s intellect and ability to reason is what separates us from all other life on this planet. While all that is certainly true, the human brain can also be maddeningly difficult to control.

It happens to certain people more than others, but at the end of the day, it’s a universal human experience. You just finished up a long, stressful day of work and finally have some time to catch up on some personal projects. The only problem is you can’t stop thinking about your job.

Similarly, perhaps you just went to bed for the evening, resolving to hit the sack early to catch up on some sleep. Great plan in theory, but as soon as your head hits the pillow your mind can’t help but reminisce on an embarrassing text you sent three years ago.

Intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts like the situations described above always seem to happen at the most inconvenient of times, and people usually employ a variety of different techniques to try and “clean out their thoughts.” Now, a fascinating and truly groundbreaking new joint study from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Texas has uncovered a few of the best ways to do away with unwanted thoughts.

In short, take a moment and place your full attention on the offending thought you want to rid yourself of. From there, put some real effort into suppressing the thought and removing it from your mind.

This “suppression” approach was found to be the most complete method of throwing away an intrusive thought. Two other methods; clearing the mind completely, or attempting to think about absolutely nothing, and replacing the thought with something else (“I really don’t want to think about that so I’ll think about this”) were also assessed. While all three proved effective, the suppression approach is the most thorough.

That being said, if you’re in a particular hurry to get rid of an annoying thought, you may want to opt for one of the other two approaches. Both of these strategies, while ultimately not as effective, help clear out the mind at a faster pace than suppression.

“The bottom line is: If you want to get something out of your mind quickly use ‘clear’ or ‘replace,'” explains study co-author Marie Banich, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder, in a release. “But if you want to get something out of your mind so you can put in new information, ‘suppress’ works best.”

These findings can potentially change the lives of millions of people. From those who feel that intrusive thoughts harm their work productivity or personal creativity, to people suffering from more serious conditions like OCD or PTSD, countless individuals can benefit from these conclusions. 

“We found that if you really want a new idea to come into your mind, you need to deliberately force yourself to stop thinking about the old one,” professor Banich adds.

At the crux of these findings lies the human mind’s working memory. The working memory is what allows us to remember specific details about a task while we’re completing it, but as soon as we move onto something else those specifics are quickly forgotten. 

Study co-author Jarrod Lewis-Peacock, a cognitive neuroscientist at UT-Austin, likens the working memory to “the mind’s scratch pad,” meaning it’s a place to store new information for rapid use. But, like a small closet overflowing with holiday gifts, it must be cleaned out to make room for new information.

“Once we’re done using that information to answer an email or address some problem, we need to let it go so it doesn’t clog up our mental resources to do the next thing,” he expands.

The trouble starts when particular thoughts or memories get stuck in the working memory. This variety of unhealthy rumination is linked to several mental health issues like generalized anxiety disorder.

“In obsessive compulsive disorder it could be the thought of as, ‘If I don’t wash my hands again I will get sick.’ In anxiety, it might be, ‘This plane is going to crash,'” professor Banich says.

So, 60 volunteers were gathered together to have their brains scanned via fMRI as they attempted to clear thoughts from their working memory. Each person was shown a series of images depicting various faces, fruits, and scenes. For a total of four seconds, participants were told to “hold” these images in their heads. This was important, as it allowed study authors to create individualized “brain signatures” depicting how each person’s brain appeared as they focused on those thoughts.

Next, study subjects were told to try out all three strategies (replace the thought, clear the thought, suppress the thought). All three approaches evoked changes in participants’ previously recorded brain signatures. In other words, these thoughts indeed faded from their minds.

“We were thrilled,” professor Banich says. “This is the first study to move beyond just asking someone, ‘Did you stop thinking about that?’ Rather, you can actually look at a person’s brain activity, see the pattern of the thought and then watch it fade as they remove it.”

However, there were some differences between the three strategies. The replace and clear approaches seemed to work faster, but also left a notable “shadow” in the background of the mind. This suggests these strategies don’t truly eliminate unwanted thoughts and allow them to linger in the back of one’s mind. The suppression approach, meanwhile, took longer to take effect but made the most room for new thoughts.

The full study can be found here, published in Nature Communications.