How Other People and Outside Objects Control Your Thoughts (and what to do about it)

Your thoughts are separate from the outside world, right?

I’ve always assumed this to be the case, although I cannot tell you why I’ve assumed it.
At any rate, it’s very interesting that a recent study conducted by researchers at San Francisco State University has found the opposite to be true.

In fact, you may not even have a choice in the matter. The outside world may be determining your thoughts. Scary, huh? And it’s a challenge to certain perspectives on personal enlightenment.

Enlightenment seekers have often hung their hats on a certain concept:

Between stimulus and response, there is a moment of choice.

This moment of choice is the supposed gateway to personal freedom. You are not a slave to your environment. You can choose your response. Or so the saying goes.

Scientists at SFSU would beg to differ. They claim the outside environment can determine your thoughts automatically. Like it or not. How did they come to such a conclusion?

The SFSU study asked participants to look at a simple picture without…

1) Thinking of the word associated with the image, or

2) Mentally counting the number of letters in the word associated with the picture.

sun
For example, they show you a picture of the sun. You are to simply look at the picture without thinking to yourself “sun” or mentally noting how many letters are in the word “sun.”

Simple enough?  The study found that 80 percent of participants who were presented with the image of the sun automatically said the word “sun,” to themselves. And 50 percent silently counted to three.

This research is the first to demonstrate that not one, but two streams of thought can be controlled by an outside influence, against the participants’ will. Do we indeed have far less control over our internal thought processes than most of us realize?

What happened to the “moment of choice” between stimulus and response?

According to study co-author and professor of psychology Ezequiel Morsella, thoughts are far more tightly linked to our external environment than most people, including the researchers, realize.

According to Morsella, his research proves that the 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. Once activated, the brain can’t help but deliver.

Is your brain delivering thoughts on autopilot?

Of course it is. Mine is too. That’s what brains do.

When those thoughts are unpleasant, my personal instinct is to insist that they “stop.” Go away unwanted thoughts. I don’t like you. Of course, this approach rarely works. My brain was built to automatically produce thoughts in response to the environment. I couldn’t function well without this little feature.

So if we don’t actually have a pragmatic moment of choice between stimulus and response, what are we to do?

Answer: Search for your moment of choice wherever you can find it. So, you have immediate and automatic thoughts in direct response to something in your environment. Great. That’s your brain at work. And it’s healthy. It’s adaptive. If you fight this phenomenon, you will be fighting a losing battle.

Just consciously jump into the mix as soon as you can. You will probably need to jump in well after your initial reaction. That’s ok.

How to jump in?

Do it Yourself Here’s a goofy yet surprisingly effective approach:

When your thoughts are churning, talk directly to your brain.

For example, let’s say that you suddenly encounter a person that you don’t like. Instantly, you feel uncomfortable. Your brain has already launched into a tirade: What a jerk! I can’t stand this. I’ve got to get outta here!

As soon as you can gather yourself somewhat, fire back: Hey brain! Thank you for taking over and providing some automatic warnings for me. Sure appreciate it. Now, can I insert a thought of my own? Here it is: I will get through this moment and be fine. I can calm down now.

I’m sharing this because it happened to me. I was in line at the grocery store and who appears in line behind me? My son’s ex-girlfriend’s mother. No, I didn’t want to make small talk with her. Sue me. Rather, sue my brain. This was my unfortunate attitude at the time. I’m not perfect.

After the second or third round of ‘Why did I have to get stuck in line with her?’ I talked back to my brain. Hey, brain, listen. It’s fine. This woman means well and hasn’t done anything wrong. And she’s a good person. I can relax now, please.

Hilariously, my brain replied with, “Whatever.”

Another successful brain intervention.

This is actually one of the benefits of learning NLP. In NLP, we train ourselves to be aware of our subjective experience. And we learn to alter it where we can.

Now, the interesting question is, “Can you change the initial automatic response from negative to positive?”

Yes, you can. You cannot help but respond to the environment. But you can change the basic lens through which you perceive it. If you initial reaction is negative, you may need to look at your paradigm.

And if negative psychological attachments are the lens through which you perceive certain situations, then negativity and suffering will be guaranteed. This is what the AHA Solution is for.

Thank you for reading this article! Please leave a comment with your first impressions on what I’ve written here. I’m curious!

About Mike Bundrant

Mike Bundrant is a retired psychotherapist, Master NLP trainer, and practicing life coach. He and his wife, Hope, co-founded iNLP Center in 2011.
Comments ( 6 )
  1. Caro Eardley

    Hey Mike
    I always enjoy your posts but regarding this one here is my
    question: today I heard on the news (I usually limit my intake but
    sometimes a few headlines slip under the radar) and here, in sunny South
    Africa, food security has just become a real problem: the maize crop is
    failing from poor rain so serious food price hikes are just around the
    corner – all food prices will be affected. And, just when we’ve all be
    breathing a sigh of relief over cheaper petrol these last few months,
    we’re told to expect increased prices in March as the oil price (meant
    to take 2 years to recover) is rebounding at speed. Oh and the economy is tanking too!

    Boom!
    I’m anxious and negative thoughts – about how I’m going to cope with
    steeply higher basic costs when I’m struggling right now – are running
    wild.

    So my question is: when fears are real, how do you handle
    the physical & mental stress response? Even burying my head in a
    book – a favored escapist tactic lol – isn’t working any more but I’m
    aware that my stress levels are out of control. And I do a lot of breath
    work which certainly helps but it’s not enough…Any ideas? Looking
    forward to your response!

    • Hi Caro – I’d suggest paying close attention to your self-talk in this situation. What are you saying to yourself? And is what you are saying helpful, given the real situation?

  2. Howard Tiersky

    Hi Mike..hmmm interesting study but it seems to focus on the language centers of the brain which label objects and I wonder if its really applicable to more general self-talk or emotional reactions. Also, while of course whether the study is focused on it or not, I certainly do agree that we have stimulus-response triggers of course which become habituated. The idea that our subconscious is responding more rapidly than our conscious mind can make a choice in many situations certainly seems correct (and agree with your strategy of then redirecting the ongoing self talk even if you cant ‘get ahead’ of it, but do you see any connection between this research and the ability to use for example NLP techniques to modify those habitual patterns so that even if we dont have that ‘moment of choice’ in a given moment, we can still ‘reprogram’ that automatic response for the future?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Howard. I think most NLP techniques are built to apply to ongoing internal dynamics. To arrive at a point where you automatic response – the one you are not consciously controlling – is the one you want, I believe we must address personal paradigm issues. The core belief systems predetermine meaning, as far as I can tell.

  3. kathee

    I remember lying in my room when I was in high school and writing in a journal to my future husband. I’d write all sorts of notes and questions and things I’d wonder or ask this man when I eventually met him. I would wonder where he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about me too. It has always been such a strong desire in my heart to find a wonderful man to marry, someone who would love me and cherish me and appreciate me for the person I am. Ic always thought I would get married right out of college, just like my parents, so when that plan didn’t work out, I started to get discouraged. A school mate snatched my future husband away from my arms just because she had spiritual powers, all hope was lost to me before i came across the help doctor ([email protected]
    ) who i confided in, i told him my long story and he helped me regain back my lover with his prayers which is now my husband today. if you have any problem email the help doctor ([email protected]
    ).

  4. kathee

    I remember lying in my room when I was in high school and writing in a journal to my future husband. I’d write all sorts of notes and questions ancd things I’d wonder or ask this man when I eventually met him. I would wonder where he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about me too. It has always been such a strong desire in my heart to find a wonderful man to marry, someone who would love me and cherish me and appreciate me for the person I am. I always thought I would get married right out of college, just like my parents, so when that plan didn’t work out, I started to get discouraged. A school mate snatched my future husband away from my arms just because she had spiritual powers, all hope was lost to me before i came across the help doctor ([email protected]
    ) who i confided in, i told him my long story and he helped me regain back my lover with his prayers which is now my husband today. if you have any problem email the help doctor ([email protected]
    ).

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