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Why it’s so hard to stop obsessing about things — and what to do about it
Try not to think about your hands. Now enjoy a few minutes of not being able to stop thinking about them.
- The "white bear problem" describes that situation in which we can't stop thinking about something no matter how hard we try.
- Your mental process at such times pits two parts of your brain against each other.
- Research support a few ways to exit this maddening hamster wheel.
It's four hours before you need to get up, and the dog barks at a squirrel outside the window. Down goes the blind, back to sleep goes the dog, but there you lie, sleepless, your wheels spinning madly, obsessing over that thing. You simply can't stop thinking about it, and you need to sleep.
How can you ever get back to the sleep you so badly need? You could try to work out why your brain won't cut you a break here — you could think about the "white bear problem" or "ironic processing theory."
The white bear problem
Just an innocent child, staring you down. Image source: Eric Isselee / Shutterstock
It can be really hard to deliberately not think about something. Back in 1863, in his essay "Winter Notes on Summer Impressions," Dostoevsky first posed a challenge: Try not to think of a white polar bear. Go ahead. Try it if you like.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner later came across the passage and became intrigued by how hard it was to block out his own white-bear thoughts. Speaking at the 2011 American Psychological Association's (APA) annual convention he recalled, "I was really taken with it. It seemed so true." In 1987, Dr. Wegner published the results of his scientific investigation into the problem in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 53, No. 1). His experiment was pretty simple, and the outcome odd.
Wegner asked one group of subjects to continuously describe their stream of consciousness out loud while thinking of a white polar bear over a period of five minutes. Each time they succeeded, they were instructed to ring a bell.
With a second group, the instructions were the same, but with one key difference: They were instructed not to think of a white polar bear. They couldn't help themselves, and they rang their bells on an average of more than once each minute.
Finally, Wegner asked that second group to repeat the experiment while deliberately thinking of the polar bear. It turns out they rang their bells even more than the first group who had been told to think about the bear right from the start.
Wegner's takeaway was that trying not to think of a white polar bear ironically made it only more likely that you couldn't get one out of your mind.
The ironic process theory
Over the next decade Wegner conducted additional research regarding why this phenomenon occurs. He saw evidence that while one part of the brain is obediently shutting out thoughts of a white bear, another part, "helpfully" checks in periodically to make sure you're being successful, reminding you of the white bear all over again. Wegner wryly named this the "ironic process," and it's certainly not an example of our brain at its finest.
Banishing your white bear
Image source: Robert Mcgillivray / Shutterstock
There are a few different methods that have been proposed for getting an obsessive thought out of your head.
At his APA talk, Wegner suggested:
- Re-aim your mental focus on something else that interests you to take your mind off the white bear. Wegner found this even worked when subjects simply replaced the bear with a red Volkswagen. Of course, getting the car out of their heads…
- Assign another time to think about the topic. Wegner said that some people find it useful to set aside specific times, maybe an hour each day, for thinking through their personal white bears. The idea is to allow yourself to defer the obsession to a more convenient time and get it out of your way for now.
- Cut back on multitasking. Apparently people whose brains are regularly overtaxed tend to drift to thoughts of death more often, one of the classic and most insidious white bears.
- Exposure. Taking a cue from Wegner's' first study, allot yourself a little bit of time to obsess to keep the topic from popping back into your head even more frequently. Basically, you're letting a little steam out of that mental pressure cooker you feel like you're stuck in.
- Meditation and mindfulness. Both of these practices can enhance your mental-control abilities and may strengthen your ability to stop that wheel spinning when you need to.
- Engage in an activity on a different emotional frequency. Try doing or thinking of something that changes your mood in a positive way to essentially change the emotional channel.
- Write down all the reasons why what you fear will not happen. So many of our obsessive thoughts are worries, and yet, most of the things we worry about never end up happening. It may help to remind yourself that just because you can realistically imagine something bad happening doesn't mean that it will. A list like this can help you talk yourself back down off the ledge.
- Write down all the reasons why even if the worst-case scenario did happen, you would still be okay. Odds are you've gotten through plenty of tough situations already and are more skilled at surviving or overcoming them than you give yourself credit for. This could be a good time to remind yourself of how you'd deal with that outcome you fear, to make it less overwhelming.
- Create an action-oriented, solution-focused re-frame. Vilhauer suggests constructing a new internal description of your white bear that's structured as a problem/solution puzzle. This can defuse the anxiety that's got your mind racing. Three steps can get you there:
- What do I believe this situation means for me? Catalogue specifically those things that are actually at risk as a result of that thing you're obsessing about.
- What do I want to happen? Imagine yourself coming out the other side of this problem. If you view the problem as an opportunity, where would you like to find yourself?
- What can I do that is likely to bring that about? Okay, what would it take to get to your desired outcome? Time to make a plan.
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.
- Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
- One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
- "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.
- A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
- Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
- Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
A pile of recycled cardboard sits on the ground at Recology's Recycle Central on January 4, 2018 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images<p>A large part of the reason is speed. In a competitive market, pure players use the equation, <em>speed + convenience</em>, to drive adoption. This is especially relevant to the "last mile" GHG footprint: the distance between the distribution center and the consumer.</p><p>Interestingly, the smallest GHG footprint occurs when you order directly from a physical store—even smaller than going there yourself. Pure players, such as Amazon, are the greatest offenders. Variables like geographic location matter; the team looked at shopping in the UK, the US, China, and the Netherlands. </p><p>Sadegh Shahmohammadi, a PhD student at the Netherlands' Radboud University and corresponding author of the paper, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/26/tech/greenhouse-gas-emissions-retail/index.html" target="_blank">says</a> the above "pattern holds true in countries where people mostly drive. It really depends on the country and consumer behavior there."</p><p>The researchers write that this year-and-a-half long study pushes back on previous research that claims online shopping to be better in terms of GHG footprints.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"They have, however, compared the GHG emissions per shopping event and did not consider the link between the retail channels and the basket size, which leads to a different conclusion than that of the current study."</p><p>Online retail is where convenience trumps environment: people tend to order one item at a time when shopping on pure player sites, whereas they stock up on multiple items when visiting a store. Consumers will sometimes order a number of separate items over the course of a week rather than making one trip to purchase everything they need. </p><p>While greening efforts by online retailers are important, until a shift in consumer attitude changes, the current carbon footprint will be a hard obstacle to overcome. Amazon is trying to have it both ways—carbon-free and convenience addicted—and the math isn't adding up. If you need to order things, do it online, but try to consolidate your purchases as much as possible.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.