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Unwanted External Influences on How We Think

New research shows that our stream of consciousness is more susceptible to external stimuli than had previously been proven.

In the study, San Francisco State University investigators asked participants to look at a common image but avoid thinking of the word that corresponds with the image or how many letters are in that word.

The task may seem simple, but the study found that when presented with ☼, for example, nearly 80 percent of people will automatically conjure up the word “sun” and about half will quietly count to three.

San Francisco State University researchers believe the study is the first demonstration of two thoughts in the stream of consciousness being controlled externally and against participants’ will.

“Our conscious thoughts seem protected from our surroundings, but we found that they are much more tightly linked to the external environment than we might realize, and that we have less control of what we will think of next,” said Ezequiel Morsella, co-author of the study.

Morsella and his team showed the study’s participants 52 black-and-white images corresponding to familiar words of varying lengths, basic drawings including a fox, heart, and bicycle. Participants were instructed not to subvocalize (speak in the mind) each word or how many letters the word had.

Nevertheless, on average, 73 percent subvocalized a word and 33 percent counted its letters.

“We triggered with our experiment not one but two different kinds of unintentional thoughts, and each thought required a substantial amount of processing,” Morsella said.

“We think that this effect reflects the machinery of the brain that gives rise to conscious thoughts. When you activate the machinery — and it can be activated even by being told not to do something — the machinery cannot help but deliver a certain output into consciousness.”

The study found that people were much more likely to experience counting subvocalizations of shorter words.

For words with three letters, 50 percent of participants reported counting. At six or more letters, the rate dropped to just over 10 percent.

“It shows you the limits of the unconscious machinery that generates conscious thoughts — it seems that it can’t count above four or five,” Morsella said. He added that the limits to the automatic triggers are not clear, nor is it understood why they exist.

Morsella believes the research has important implications for the study of psychopathological disorders that afflict people with uncontrollable repetitive thoughts or, more commonly, the inability to stifle an obsession.

“When people have a thought they can’t control, this machinery may be at work,” Morsella said. “We’re learning not only that the brain does work this way, but that unfortunately, under most circumstances, the brain should work like this.”

Although the findings are sobering, researchers believe the mind’s inability to shut out unwanted thoughts is a good thing in most cases.

“A lot of things that seem bad about the brain reflect part of its overall architecture, which was selected through evolution because, in most cases, it is adaptive,” Morsella said.

Take guilt, for example. Just like most people can’t stop themselves from subvocalizing the word “sun” in response to an image of one, it can also be difficult to repress negative feelings after doing something wrong.
“If you could override these kinds of thoughts, it would not be adaptive,” Morsella explained.

“There is a reason why we feel guilt: to change future behavior. If you could snap your fingers and not feel guilty about something, guilt would cease to have a functional role.”

The study is published in the online version of the journal Consciousness and Cognition and will be in a forthcoming hard copy edition.

Source: San Francisco State University

Woman covering eyes photo available from Shutterstock

Unwanted External Influences on How We Think

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Unwanted External Influences on How We Think. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 4 Feb 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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