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Don’t Think Of A Pink Elephant


I have often wondered why explicit efforts to control our mind sometimes backfire. I am not talking about monk like control of mind. Even though the same question applies there. I am just talking more about simple things, like trying not to think about pink elephant.

Try not to think about a pink elephant, sure enough within a minute, your mind will conjure up an image of pink elephant. Why does this happen? In millions of years of evolution, why did not our minds build this ability of self control? As always I think about finding an explanation from evolutionary psychology point of view. Is there any survival advantage in mind that cannot control itself? I can’t find one.

But it seems like an intriguiging question that keeps bothering me. Why does this happen at all?

On one of my walks, I stumbled across the answer. When I try to tell my mind not to think about a pink elephant, every now and then my mind has to test whethere it has successfully avoided thinking about pink elephants. The only way to confirm this is to bring in a pink elephant in the picture and make sure none of my thoughts have anything resembling that within them. And boom. Precisely that’s where it fails. When it brings in a thought of pink elephant to test and compare other thoughts to confirm there is no pink elephant, it has brought in a pink elephant.

In our mind, there is a constant dance of creative and judgmental voices. Kind of like yin and yang. It’s that dance that many times defeats the control mechanisms of the mind. If you try to suppress an impulse because you judge that it’s not good impuslse, the impulse gets repressed. Today, you as an ego based identity, are identifying with the judgmental voice within you. But tomorrow your ego will identify with the creative voice. You will want to be the bad boy (or bad girl) that you didn’t “be” yesterday. And the repressed impulse will find it’s way out through that creative voice. This switch of identification with different part of your personality trips the self control attempt.

And if your creative voice wants you to experiment with mind, such as an attempt to stop thinking about pink elephant, then your judgmental voice will being in an elephant image, just to judge whether the creative voice is being creative correctly, and that’s where it will defeat the purpose.

This is not to say mind control is never possible. I think it possible not through suppression, but through reflection. When you reflect on your thoughts, impulses and emotions, and you see their transitory nature, that’s when mind stops being pulled in the direction of the impulse. Because you stop identifying with the creative or judgmental voices, and you identify yourself with the awareness. Or as one Zen master says “You are neither happy one, nor sad one. You are the one that goes from happiness to sadness” (or vice versa)

2 Responses

  1. nice stuff i really like your post hey, and true, please lets follow each other and share each others work.

  2. I loved the way in which you examined yourself as a method of answering a question.
    I also loved the way you disclosed how from our own perspective the workings of our mind are not transparent. Instead we have to come up with accounts for why certain phenomena and behaviour occur – such as thinking about pink elephants when one is trying not to think of pink elephants.
    Our mind is really a kind of black box out of which things come into consciousness seemingly spontaneously and if we are to understand what is going on we can’t just open it up and have a look – not even neuroscience can do that – but we have to come up with theories and concepts to attempt an explanation.
    Just to play devil’s advocate – because I do like your hypothesis – couldn’t the act of trying not to think of a pink elephant – couldn’t the thought “do not think of a pink elephant” contain within it the “pink elephant” you are trying not to think of?
    It’s a much simpler explanation.
    Also the words themselves are not the locus of meaning or content – rather i believe that they are the outward manifestation into consciousness of already thought thoughts if you get me?

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