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.


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.

iNLP Center Staff
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