5 Neuroscience Based Ways to Clear Your Mind

Neuroscientists have identified effective ways to forget unwanted thoughts.

As an ultra-endurance athlete, I’ve competed in the Badwater Ultramarathon a few times. Some call Badwater the “world’s toughest footrace” because it’s a 135 mile non-stop run from the bottom of Death Valley to Mt. Whitney—in the middle of July—when temperatures can reach 130º fahrenheit.

The physical discomfort of running five marathons back-to-back through Death Valley in the middle of July requires more psychological finesse than it does aerobic endurance. Succeeding in sports is always going to rely on mastering your mindset and explanatory styles. As Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.”

One of the most important skills I’ve learned as an ultra-endurance athlete is how to clear my mind of unwanted thoughts. When your feet are covered in blisters, the pavement is hot enough to fry an egg, and you still have 3 marathons to run—you learn quickly how to pull any tricks from your psychological toolbox that will help you reach the finish line.

When every alarm in your body and brain is sounding a red alert telling you to “Stop!” … How does someone push through and keep on going? When it comes to clearing your mind of unwanted thoughts, taking a multi-pronged approach that gives the situation what it needs has always worked for me in sports, and I think it will work for you, too, in sport and in life.

For this blog post, I’ve compiled a “top five” list of mental tricks that I learned as an athlete to clear my mind of pain, negative thinking, anxiety, rumination, and self-sabotage. I’ve paired the lessons I learned through life experience with the latest neuroscientific empirical evidence. I also included some images that capture the essence of each point—a picture really is worth a thousand words.

5 Neuroscience Based Ways to Clear Your Mind by Bergland

  1. Distraction
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Suppression
  4. Substitution
  5. Meditation

1. Distraction

Pixabay/Free Image
Source: Pixabay/Free Image

The American editor and publisher, Elbert Hubbard, once said, “Life without absorbing occupation is hell—joy consists in forgetting life.” Neuroscientists at Brown University recently confirmed that the key to “optimal inattention” lies in occupying your mind with something else through distraction.

The mind can only really think of one thing at a time. When you concentrate your attention on one thing, you inevitably engage the parallel act of purposefully ignoring other things.

The February 2015 study, “Attention Drives Synchronization of Alpha and Beta Rhythms between Right Inferior Frontal and Primary Sensory Neocortex,” was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The researchers at Brown were able to identify how the brain achieves “optimal inattention” by changing the synchronization of brainwaves between different brain regions. The researchers hope that by harnessing the “power to ignore” that people with chronic pain will have new cognitive tools for reducing their pain.

For this study, the participants were told that they would feel a brief tap on the left middle finger or the left big toe. In some cases, they were then told to report only stimuli felt on the foot and to disregard what they might feel on their hand. In other cases, they were told to attend to or report sensations only in the hand and to ignore those in the foot.

The researchers found significant patterns of synchrony between various regions which showed that the mind could direct attention to either the hand or the foot, but not both at the same time.

If you ever find yourself obsessing or ruminating about a thought, remember that distraction is a highly effective way to shift the synchronization of your brainwaves and gives you the “power to ignore” on demand.

2. Mindfulness

Pixabay/Free Image
Source: Pixabay/Free Image

The Brown University study co-senior author, Catherine Kerr, is an assistant professor of family medicine in the Alpert Medical School. Her team has found that people can learn how to manipulate their alpha rhythms in the somatosensory cortex as they switch their attentional focus though mindfulness training.

The results of their latest research expand our understanding of how mindfulness might possibly operate using the mechanism of redirecting attention via control of alpha rhythms in the brain, which can help people ignore depressive thoughts. In a press release Kerr said,

This is part of a really cool effort at Brown to see if you can take pretty high-level cognitive questions, find the relevant areas in the brain, and then figure out how to put that in a context with the underlying neurophysiology, at the level of computational models and animal models. We’re linking different ways of looking at the brain that don’t usually come into dialogue with one another.

In another recent study from Lund University in Sweden, researchers led by Jan Sundquist found that mindfulness treatment can be as effective as individual cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in patients with depression and anxiety.

If you’d like to read more about practicing mindfulness check out my Psychology Today blog post, Mindfulness: The Power of “Thinking About Your Thinking”.

3. Suppression

Photo by Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo by Christopher Bergland

In the 1800s, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “The existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things do not come to our mind when we want them to.” Well, it turns out that modern brain imaging technology has allowed neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge to identify two opposite ways in which the brain forgets unwanted memories.

The 2012 study, “Opposing Mechanisms Support the Voluntary Forgetting of Unwanted Memories,” was published in the journal Neuron. The researchers’ findings help explain how individuals can cope with negative or traumatic  experiences and could lead to the development of treatments to improve disorders of memory control.

In a press release, lead study author Roland Benoit, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University said, “This study is the first demonstration of two distinct mechanisms that cause such forgetting: one by shutting down the remembering system, and the other by facilitating the remembering system to occupy awareness with a substitute memory.”

During memory suppression, a brain structure called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex inhibited activity in the hippocampus, a region critical for recalling past events.

“A better understanding of these mechanisms and how they break down may ultimately help understanding disorders that are characterized by a deficient regulation of memories, such as post-traumatic stress disorder,” Benoit says. “Knowing that distinct processes contribute to forgetting may be helpful, because people may naturally be better at one approach or the other.”

4. Substitution

Pixabay/Free Image
Source: Pixabay/Free Image

Although the strategies of using suppression and substitution were found to be equally effective at voluntarily forgetting unwanted memories, the researchers at Cambridge found that they activated very distinct neural circuits.

If suppression doesn’t work, you might want to put on your “rose-tinted glasses” and try substitution by using your imagination to pretend you’re in a different place or experiencing something else.

The researchers at Cambridge found that memory substitution was supported by caudal prefrontal cortex and midventrolateral prefrontal cortex. These are two regions typically involved in bringing specific memories into awareness in the presence of distracting memories.

The next time you need to clear your mind, remember that you can forget unwanted memories by either suppressing them or substituting them with more desirable memories, and that each of these tactics engages distinct neural pathways.

5. Meditation

Pixabay/Free Image
Source: Pixabay/Free Image

Rebecca Erwin Wells, M.D.,and Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D. at Wake Forest Baptist Health are investigating the power of meditation as a therapy to reduce pain and everyday anxiety in healthy individuals with no previous meditation experience.

When Rebecca Erwin Wells was a varsity rower at the University of North Carolina, her coach had all the members of the team take a yoga and meditation class. The experience had a huge impact. In a press release Wells recalled the experience saying:

My teammates and I noticed that yoga and meditation improved our flexibility and focus, but also made us feel better, not just when we were rowing but in our everyday lives. I wondered if yoga and meditation really have scientific benefits, especially if they have specific effects on the brain, and if so, how that works.

“We’re coming to recognize that meditation changes people’s brains,” said Wells, an assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “And we’re just beginning to gain understanding of what those changes mean and how they might benefit the meditator.”

In the first study, her team found that just eight weeks of meditation significantly improved functional connectivity in the brain’s network that is active during introspective thought such as retrieving memories. They also observed trends of less atrophy in the hippocampus.

Fadel Zeiden is exploring the specific brain mechanisms that influence meditation’s ability to reduce perceptions of pain and the experience of anxiety.

In Zeidan’s pain study, participants were asked to grade the pain caused by a device that heated a small area of their skin to 120 degrees. Participants who rated the pain they felt while they meditated reported the pain as 40 percent less intense and 57 percent less unpleasant than when they simply rested with their eyes closed.

The brain imaging performed during this experiment showed decreased neural activity in the area of the brain involved in feeling the location and intensity of pain and increased activity in brain regions associated with attention and the ability to regulate emotions.

In Zeiden’s anxiety-related research, the subjects reported decreases in everyday anxiety by as much as 39 percent after practicing meditation. The scans of their brains while meditating showed increased activity in areas of the cortex associated with regulating thinking, emotions, and worrying. In a press release Zeiden said,

In these studies we’ve been able to get a better sense of the brain regions associated with reducing pain and anxiety during meditation. Basically, by having people meditate while their brains are being scanned we’ve been able to objectively verify what people like Buddhist monks have been reporting about meditation for thousands of years.

“Our research shows that meditation produces robust effects in behavior and in the brain and may provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain,” Zeidan concluded. Adding, “What we have to do now is continue to find out exactly how it works and what it involves.”

Conclusion: Clearing Your Mind Requires Different Actions at Different Times

Hopefully, having five different techniques for clearing your mind will come in handy. The next time you need to voluntarily clear your mind of unwanted thoughts, take inventory of the specific circumstances and try one of these techniques.

If for some reason the first method doesn’t work, try the next. As an athlete, these “5 Neuroscience Based Ways to Clear Your Mind” have worked for me, and I hope they work for you, too!

-Christopher Bergland, The Athlete’s Way

How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use

“Imagine that you could earn $10 million for just half an hour’s work,” psychologist Randy J. Paterson proposed to a group of people suffering deep, intractable depression. “… All you would have to do is make yourself feel worse than you do now…How would you do it?”

The conceit of How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use is to take everything we know about being happy and turn it on its head. It’s a guide to unhappy living. Paterson’s advice starts basic — we are
encouraged to be sedentary and eat poorly, to overspend — but quickly digs deeper into happiness research to provide step-by-step cognition instructions for unhappiness.

For example, he suggests that you imagine requiring a dozen random people to live life exactly as you have been living it: same eating, sleep and exercise patterns, same social connections, same job, family and finances… and then imagine checking back in with them in a month to see how they’ve been feeling. Chances are, if you’re an unhappy person, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine those who have taken on your unhappiness-enhancing habits living a similarly miserable life.

Lesson 10 suggests setting VAPID goals: Vague, Amorphous, Pie in the sky, Irrelevant and Delayed. And Lesson 20 advises you to “Work Endlessly on Your Self-Esteem”:

“… people with good self-esteem are not constantly evaluating themselves. It’s the ones without it who do this. Our culture tells us that having self-esteem is an active process of building ourselves up. It isn’t. Cats, three-year-olds, and adults with good self-esteem aren’t doing much of anything—they’re focused on the task at hand.”

He prescribes placing fashion over style, since fashion is dictated to you and style is self-expression. And he suggests becoming a “Toxic Optimist” so that your optimism will blind you to reality with “Probability inflation” (assuming something will happen because you want it), “Selective attention” (seeing only what supports your goal), and “Elevated expectations” that cause you to live according to the assumption that your goal will be met — which means that when they are, it will be no big deal, and when they aren’t, it’s an unexpected and therefore crushing blow.

Vancouver-based Paterson, whose previous books include Assertiveness Workbook: How to express your ideas and stand up for yourself at work and in relationships, writes with a friendly tone and easygoing Canadian humor. Short chapters are densely packed and Paterson does have a somewhat academic writing style, so although the book is short and light in tone, it’s not exactly breezy.

How to Be Miserable is a bathroom or nightstand book in the way Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is: the kind of book you leave around to flip open from time to time and see what strikes a chord. We’re all guilty of some (most?) of the things in the book sometimes, and Paterson successfully explains the cognitive tricks we play on ourselves, then provides step-by-step instructions for tapping maximum misery from each one.

How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use
New Harbinger Publications, May 1, 2016
Paperback, 232 pages
$15.95

Book Reviewed by Sophia Dembling

15 Ways to Get Someone Out of Your Head

Expert tips to manage your frustration and get past toxic thinking.

Have you ever found that you just can’t stop thinking about someone—what they did or said, and how bewildered or hurt you were by their actions? When someone hurts us, our children, or someone we love; gossips behind our back; or simply acts crazy in ways that confound us, we can get stuck thinking about it for hours or days. We’re washing dishes, driving, or walking the dogs and we can’t stop thinking about how unkind, untrue and self-centered the things that person said were. Their image, their words, keep resurfacing. Five hours, five days, five weeks later, there they are—we see their face in front of us, even if we haven’t seen them in all that time.

(Just to be clear, I’m not addressing how we deal with trauma or abuse here—situations which require professional help and intervention—I’m talking about the day-to-day interactions we have with others that leave us mentally sputtering).

How can we stop feeling embroiled in other people’s craziness? How can we stop thinking about a person or situation—what we should have or could have done differently—when the same thoughts keep looping back, rewinding, and playing through our mind again and again?

Or maybe, for you, it’s not about a person. It’s about what you got or didn’t get, what you need but don’t have, what just isn’t right in your life. Usually, of course, there is a person involved whom you feel deserves blame for whatever is wrong.

It’s toxic cyclical thinking. And most of us know that this kind of ruminating is both emotionally and physically harmful to us.

In fact, studies show that a ruminating mind is an unhappy and unhealthy mind. When our monkey mind is unhappily fraught with replaying altercations, resentments or losses, we marinate in a cascade of harmful inflammatory stress chemicals and hormones linked to almost every disease we can name. Increasingly, scientists can pinpoint how ruminating plays a role in diseases including depression, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disease. The stress chemicals we wallow in are far worse for us than the thing that actually happened to bring them on in the first place.

Moreover, toxic thinking just doesn’t feel good: It’s like getting caught on a spinning, centrifugal-force ride at the fair that was fun for a few turns, but now just makes you feel sick.

You want to get off. But you can’t.

We work so hard to remove whatever is toxic from our lives: We buy organic, we avoid unhealthy foods, we remove chemicals from our home. We eat green, we clean green, we buy organic cosmetics. But we put very little concerted effort into trying to go green in our minds. What is the green solution for toxic thinking?

In researching and writing my recent book, The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life, I developed a number of insights on how to stop myself from spinning stories, ruminating, worrying, and replaying thoughts about someone or something.

These 15 small but powerful ideas work for me. Many are based on teachings from today’s leaders in mindfulness psychology and meditation. Choose the ones that resonate most with you:

  1. “Less said, more time.” This my own personal motto. Saying less and letting more time pass when we’re dealing with a difficult, reactive person is almost always a smart move. It allows us to simmer down, and let it go, take the high road. Often, with time, the thing we’re annoyed about just falls away.
  2. “Let’s just wait and see what happens next.” We often feel the need to respond and react to difficult people or situations right away, which is why we stew so much over what to say or do next. Buddhist psychologist Sylvia Boorstein suggests that instead we simply give ourselves permission to wait and see what happens next.
  3. Move away from the blame game. Picking apart past events and trying to assign blame (including blaming oneself) is rarely productive. Bad things and misunderstandings most often “happen” through a series of events, like a domino effect. No one person is usually entirely to blame for the end result. Sylvia Boorstein has a saying that helps to remind us of this truth: “First this happened, then that happened, then that happened. And that is how what happened happened.”
  4. “Try not to fall into other people’s states of minds.” Another Sylvia Boorstein nugget that pretty much says it all.
  5. “Deal with your biggest problem first.” Buddhist meditation teacher Norman Fischer suggests that no matter what’s happened, the biggest problem we face is our own anger. Our anger creates a cloud of emotion that keeps us from responding in a cogent, productive way. In that sense, our anger really is our biggest problem. Deal with yourself—meditate, exercise, take a long walk, say less and give it more time, whatever it takes—before you deal with anyone else.
  6. “When you’re angry it wrinkles the mind.” This Sylvia Boorstein teaching follows along the same lines. You can’t think clearly or be creative or thoughtful about how best to handle any situation when you’re mad. “Anger wrinkles the mind,” she says. If you want to think clearly, “you can’t be mad at anything.”
  7. “Don’t try to figure others out.” This is another Norman Fischer teaching. Ask yourself, if others tried to figure out what you’re thinking, or what your motivations are, how right do you think they’d be? They probably wouldn’t have a clue as to what’s really going through your mind. So why try to figure out what others are thinking? Chances are extremely good that you would be wrong, which means that all that ruminating was a colossal waste of time.
  8. Your thoughts are not facts. Don’t treat them as if they are. In other words, Don’t believe everything you think. We experience our emotions—anxiety, tension, fear and stress—keenly in our bodies. Our emotions are physical. We often take this as a sign that our thoughts must be facts. How could we feel so bad if our feelings weren’t true? Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tsokyni Rinpoche teaches that when we’re emotionally hijacked by worry, regret, fear, anxiety, anger, to remember that the emotional and physical state we experience is “Real but not true.”
  9. How can you grow from this? Insight Meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach suggests that when we are locked in anger, taking offense over something said or done, making judgments, or fuming over how we were treated, we add to our own reservoir of suffering. An event + our reaction = suffering. When we’re able to be present with our feelings, and inquire why we’re experiencing such a strong reaction and what our feelings tell us about ourselves, that’s a learning opportunity. An event + inquiry + presence = growth. Center your thoughts on growth. Green, not red.
  10. “Don’t ever put anyone out of your heart, not even you.” A Tara Brach teaching that speaks for itself.
  11. You’re not a time magician. When we churn over past events we often search for how we might have done things differently to prevent a crazy-making altercation or regrettable outcome. But what happened yesterday is as much in the past as what happened a thousand or more years ago in the time of the Mayans. We can’t change what took place way back then, and we can’t change what happened a week ago.
  12. Forgive, for your sake. Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield teaches, “It is not necessary to be loyal to your suffering.” We are so loyal to our suffering, he says, “focusing on the trauma of ‘what happened to me.’ Yes, it happened. Yes, it was horrible. But is that what defines you?” Forgiveness is not something we do just for the other person. We forgive so that we can live free of the acute suffering that comes with holding onto the past. In other words, Kornfield teaches, “Forgive for you.”
  13. Occupy a different mind space. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teacher and psychologist Trish Magyari teaches meditation accompanied by powerful imagery—and studies show that imagery helps us to stop inflamed, stressful thoughts. Here is one image that works for me every time: Imagine that you are at the bottom of deep blue ocean watching everything swim by. Just watch all your thoughts go by. “Imagine that you are the deep, calm, blue sea.” I always relax when I hear this.
  14. Send them lovingkindness. Intuitive Medical Healer Wanda Lasseter-Lundy suggests that when you can’t stop thinking about someone who’s hurt you or who’s driving you crazy, “Imagine yourself sending them a beautiful ball of white light. Place them in that ball of light. Surround them with it, holding that white light around them, until your anger fades.” Try it, it really works.
  15. Take a 90-second time out. To free your mind, you first have to break your thought pattern. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel, MD, says that “After 90 seconds an emotion will arise and fall like a wave on the shore.” It only takes ninety seconds to shift out of a mood state, including anger. Give yourself ninety seconds—about 15 deep in and out breaths—to not think about that person or situation. You’ve broken that thought cycle—and the hold your thoughts had on you.

Now, doesn’t that feel good?

Follow Donna Jackson Nakazawa on Twitter and Facebook, or join her at her blog at donnajacksonnakazawa.com. Find out more about how to Green the Mind in her new book, The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life.

5 Psychological Habits That Limit Your Ability to Think

4. Overanalyzing rejection

Our brain is like a computer processor: It has a finite amount of processing power, or intellectual resources, that can be used in a given moment. Any competing task (or emotional state) that occupies too much of our intellectual firepower impacts our ability to concentrate, focus, problem-solve, be creative, or use other cognitive abilities; as a result, our functioning IQ is temporarily lowered.

To demonstrate this principle, try walking while counting down from 1000 by sevens (1000, 993, 986, etc.). You will soon stop walking. Why? Your brain has to work so hard to do this math that it doesn’t have enough resources left to tell your legs to put one foot in front of the other.

Most common competing tasks do not have a significant impact on our ability to work or study. Most of us can do homework while listening to music and can become absorbed in a book while eating.

However, some psychological habits consume such huge amounts of intellectual resources that they diminish our cognitive capacities. Few people are aware that these psychological habits have such a detrimental effect, so they are unlikely to pause what they’re doing—and this can seriously affect a person’s ability to perform a task at full capacity.

5 Common Psychological Habits that Impair Intellectual Functioning

1. Brooding

Replaying upsetting, frustrating, or distressing events over and over again—especially when doing so frequently or habitually—can make our minds race with thoughts or stir us up emotionally, severely taxing our intellectual resources. In addition to impacting our cognitive functioning, brooding (also known as ruminating) can present real dangers to our emotional and even our physical health. (See The Seven Hidden Dangers of Brooding.)

2. Unresolved Guilt

We all feel guilty from time to time. When we do, we typically apologize or take some kind of action to resolve our guilty feelings. However, when guilt is not addressed and repeatedly pops into your mind, it creates a huge cognitive distraction that seriously impairs cognitive functioning. The solution is to put guilty feelings behind you as best you can. (See The Secret of Effective Apologies.)

3. Ineffective Complaining

Most people are likely to share their frustrations with friends than discuss them with someone who could help to resolve them. The problem is that, each time we tell our tale, we become frustrated and annoyed. Anger and frustration require significant processing power and enable ineffective complaints to become a regular drain on our brainpower.

4. Overanalyzing Rejection

Rejection creates emotional pain that significantly impacts our mood and has a serious impact on cognitive functioning. It also causes us to become self-critical, a habit that further damages our self-esteem, extending the duration of our emotional distress—and with it, our compromised cognitive abilities. (See 10 Surprising Facts about Rejection.)

5. Worrying

Many people don’t consider worrying harmful. “I’m just a bit of a worrier,” we might say with a wry smile. But worrying creates an uncomfortable and unpleasant emotional state, and it can be seriously distracting. When we’re worried about something, it tends to take priority in our minds, and push everything else to the side. Fortunately, it’s easier to address and resolve worry (by thinking through potential solutions) than it is anxiety. (See The Difference between Anxiety and Worry.)

Guy Winch, PhD

Cognitive Restructuring – Common Thought Errors that Lead to Depression and Anxiety

Sometimes, we allow ourselves to think in ways that lead us down paths of destruction. Common errors in thought processes can lead to a number of negative symptoms; most notably anxiety and depression!

Disqualifying the Positive – Discounting the good things that have occurred in your life or that you’ve accomplished, saying “that doesn’t count.”

Overgeneralization – Seeing a pattern based on just one event, being overly broad/generalizing about a specific event, one mistake makes you a complete failure. “Everything is always going wrong.” “Nothing good ever happens.”

Mental Filter – Only paying attention to certain types of evidence, picking out the one negative and focusing on it. Noticing your failures while ignoring or overlooking your successes.

Should, Must, Ought – Using critical words like ‘should,’ ‘must,’ or ‘ought,’ when talking to yourself can lead to feelings of guilt and/or failure. These are judgmental and unforgiving expectations that we place upon ourselves. And when we say “she/he should have…,” we set ourselves up for frustration.

Comparisons – Constantly comparing yourself to others, trying to Keep up with the Joneses, placing your value in how you see yourself in relation to others.

Jumping to ConclusionsMind reading, where we think we know what others are thinking without concerning ourselves with what might actually be happening. Fortune telling, quite simply, we try to predict the future. Emotions control your interpretations rather than a wise mind.

All or Nothing Thinking – Also called black and white thinking, you think in absolutes: “If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure” and “I’ll either do it right or not at all.”

Catastrophizing and Minimizing – Magnifying, blowing things out of proportion are known as catastrophizing, or thinking in catastrophic ways. Downplaying or diminishing the importance of something in an inappropriate way is minimizing.

Emotional Reasoning – Allowing your emotions to dictate your interpretations of situations rather than being objective, assuming that because you feel that way, it must be true. “I feel embarrassed, so I must be dumb,” or “I didn’t get invited to his party – he must not like me.”

Personalization – Blaming yourself, taking responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, assuming if someone has a negative emotion, it is a response to something you’ve done. The opposite of this, of course, being that you blame others for something you know was your own doing.

Labeling – Assigning labels to other people or ourselves, evaluating our self-worth and others’ worth in inappropriate ways “I’m a loser,” “She’s such an idiot,” “stupid,” “fat.”

When you recognize these maladaptive thought patterns as they happen, you will be able to decrease unnecessary stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms you’re causing yourself by misinterpreting your situations.

6 Biases That May Sub-Consciously Affect Your Thinking

Biases can creep into our thoughts by stealth, sometimes triggered by others.

How many passengers do you think New York’s LaGuardia Airport served last year?  Would you say the count is more or less than 10 million?  Make your best guess, and I’ll give you the answer at the end of this article.

Biases are cognitive errors – faulty thinking and reasoning.  When our thoughts are clouded by biases, we may jump to erroneous conclusions or make unwise decisions.  Biases can become habitual over time and can even be triggered by others who wish to manipulate our behavior.  Through complacency, our biases reoccur again and again, tainting our thoughts as we solve problems and make decisions.  They are tough, but not impossible, to root out.

There are dozens of cognitive biases.  Here are six that I find especially troublesome – and all too common:

  • Fundamental attribution error – an assumption that negative behavior in other people is caused by some innate flaw, while concluding that similar behavior in oneself was brought on by external circumstances.  For example, if someone backs out of a parking space and almost hits a pedestrian, I might conclude that the driver didn’t look before backing out, and is therefore careless.  However, if I do the same thing, I might assume that the pedestrian was in my blind spot when I looked, and that there’s no way I could have known he/she was there.
  • Endowment effect – over-estimating the value of something merely because it’s yours.  In a famous experiment at Cornell University in the 1990s, researchers gave coffee mugs to half the students in a class.  The other half received nothing.  Those with mugs were asked to set a price at which they would sell.  Those without mugs were asked to set an amount they would be willing to pay.  Mug owners set their minimum selling price at $5.25, while buyers set the maximum price they were willing to pay at $2.75.  Even though the mugs cost them nothing, the mere fact of ownership caused the sellers to over-value their mugs beyond what buyers were willing to pay.
  • Sunk cost fallacy – throwing good money after bad, rather than cutting one’s losses.  This fallacy is sometimes called “the Concorde effect,” after the supersonic airliner.  There was never enough interest from airlines in buying Concorde jetliners to justify production.  And yet the British and French governments, who jointly funded production, continued to subsidize the Concorde rather than admit they had wasted billions on a non-viable project.
  • Framing bias – being influenced by the way information is presented rather than the information itself.  For example, multi-level marketing companies claim to offer an opportunity to own your own business for very little cost and to achieve unlimited earnings, based on how hard you work at making it a success.  That sounds much better than framing the offer as an opportunity to sell their products (which you must buy from them) on a straight-commission basis, and with no benefits.
  • Post hoc fallacy – assuming that one event caused another, when the first event merely preceded the second event.  For example, televangelist Pat Robertson once claimed to have prayed a hurricane away from Virginia Beach, where his headquarters is located.  The storm hit Sodom and Gomorrah instead (i.e., New York and New Jersey).
  • Anchoring bias – the tendency to be influenced by information that is known, but irrelevant, in making a decision.  Classic examples are the sticker prices on new automobiles; the “manufacturer’s suggested retail price” on consumer items, such as electronics; and mark-downs (e.g., “today’s price: $19.99 / was “$29.99”).  As I tell my students:  The only relevant price is what you have to pay – right here, right now.  Everything else is both irrelevant and a trap. 

Were you influenced by anchoring in your estimate of the passengers served by LaGuardia last year?  The actual number is 28.4 million.  As you can see, it’s difficult to avoid cognitive biases.  Doing so requires vigilance and conscious effort to anticipate and disregard them.  Most of the time we do not function at that level of heightened consciousness, reverting instead to our habitual thinking patterns.  The more you practice, the more aware you will become of external attempts to trigger your biases, and the better you will become at filtering biases out of your thinking.

-Dave Hartley, PhD, MBA

Anxious Thoughts, Anxious Feelings

For those of us with anxiety, our thoughts can really influence our feelings and behavior. To cope with and overcome anxiety, we need to learn to be mindful of the thoughts we have and how they impact the anxiety we feel.

Take this example. You made dinner plans with a friend, but she didn’t show up. You might have one of the following responses:

  • You may think your friend stood you up, causing you to feel hurt, angry, and/or embarrassed.
  • You may think she got into an accident, leading to concern or anxiety.
  • You may be distracted by something else you had planned and feel relief to have the time to get to that instead.

The thoughts and feelings are different in each of these examples even though the situation remained exactly the same. What kind of anxious thoughts have you been experiencing lately?

-Melissa Wildt, LMHC

4 Ways to Survive Unexpected Situations

Expert advice for maintaining your confidence and finding a positive outcome.

Life throws unexpected things at us all the time. Some we like—such as finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk—but many of them we don’t, such as missing a flight due to an extra long line at airport security. Sometimes unexpected events can be much more serious, such as an illness or a job loss. Needless to say, these kinds of events can be quite distressing.

What you need to rely on most during these difficult times is your ability to think creatively and solve problems. However, research shows that negative emotions such as fear, anger, and frustration can actually cause your brain’s executive network, which is responsible for problem solving, to constrict and work less effectively. On the other hand, positive emotions help your brain generate more creative solutions to problems.

How can you become more successful at dealing with life’s curve balls? Although you can’t control the occurrence of unexpected situations, you can control how you respond—and that can make all the difference in how you feel and how you deal with distressing issues. Following are four ways to survive unexpected stress, and maybe even come out ahead:

1. Pause before you act.

There is a huge difference between a reaction and a response. A reaction comes from an automatic part of the brain. It is almost like a reflex. Reactions are very quick, especially when we feel threatened in someway. On the other hand, a response is something you consciously choose to do based on a more thoughtful assessment of a situation. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic your automatic reaction might be to get angry and assume the driver is deliberately being rude or thoughtless. This anger can cause you to want to retaliate in some way. By pausing and taking time to think, you give yourself a window of opportunity to pick a better option. You might decide that retaliating is not in your best interest or you may realize that the driver wasn’t deliberately trying to be disrespectful, but was simply not paying attention. For most people, practicing deep breathing and counting to 10 can help restrain a reaction long enough to choose a better response. If you are a very visual person you may even imagine yourself aiming a remote control at the situation and pushing the pause button. Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is another great way to increase your ability to pause before acting.

2. Don’t assume that the things you don’t want are bad. 

Most people automatically assume that if something they don’t want happens to them, it’s a bad thing that will likely lead to an even worse outcome down the road. If you break up with your partner, you may think it is awful because you will never find anyone better and you will always be alone. If you don’t get a job you sought, you may think no one will ever hire you and you will be stuck living with your parents forever. Thinking this way inevitably makes you feel terrible.

For most of the things that happen to you, there’s no way of knowing whether they will be a bad thing or a good thing—and which one an event turns out to be often has a lot to do with how you respond. If you end a relationship, blame yourself, become despondent, and never leave the house, you increase the likelihood of not finding another relationship. However, if you accept that, for whatever reason, it was not the right relationship for you, maintain a positive attitude, believe that a better relationship is coming your way, and then get involved in fun activities, you significantly increase the likelihood of finding another great partner, possibly one who is an even better match.

Unexpected situations often have the potential to open the door to new events in our lives that we do want. If you miss your plane, you may end up meeting the love of your life on a different flight. If you lose your job and are forced to move to a new city, you may meet a great new set of friends, or find your dream home. You never know what will come of a situation, so rather than assuming a situation is bad, which only generates lots of unhelpful, negative emotions, practice saying to yourself, “We shall see.” Then make an effort to look ahead with hope.

3. Plan for everything to turn out well.

Many people hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The problem with this strategy is that we act on our expectations, yet our actions create our experiences. If you want a good outcome, you have to plan for one because that is what leads to the actions that create good experiences. An unexpected event is one you didn’t plan for, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan to create the best possible outcome from the situation. We all have the ability to shift our attention from an unexpected event that seems like a big problem and focus instead on finding the solution. The minute you ask yourself what you can do to make something better, you have taken the first step in planning for events to go well. When you see a plan laid out in front of you for how to make something turn out well, your assessment of the situation starts to change. You regain your sense of control and as a result you start to feel better.

4. Trust in your ability to be OK.

Most people have been through more than one difficult thing in their life. You’ve probably already been through several significant challenges and quite a few smaller bumps in the road. No one likes them, but most of us survive them. When you are in the middle of a difficult situation, instead of assuming it won’t work out, think about the things you have already been through and ask yourself, “What did I do to get through those events?” Knowing your own strength is important for self-confidence. If focusing on your strong qualities doesn’t come naturally, ask someone who knows you well to give you a boost. When you redirect your attention from a problem to the knowledge that you’re able to handle it, you will start to feel better.

-Jennice Vilhauer, PhD

A Sure-Fire Way to Silence Your Inner Critic

You can learn to dis-identify from the inner critic voice in your head.

Most of us have been conditioned from childhood to be our own harshest critics. That inner judge can shadow us, scrutinizing our every move and making us quite miserable. For years, I’ve been working on turning the inner critic into an inner ally who will refuse to disparage me in ways I would never disparage those I care about. I’ve made a lot of progress, but that critic can still surprises me with an unexpected visit.

This happened recently on my daughter’s last wedding anniversary. I started reminiscing about that special day. My daughter and son-in-law lived across the country but the wedding was in our hometown, so I was responsible for making all the arrangements. I worked hard at it, lining up everything from decorations to flowers to food to a limousine to pick them and take them to the airport.

I always tell people that her wedding was one of the happiest days of my life, and so I was surprised that when I thought about it on her anniversary, the first thing that popped into my mind was that the post-ceremony luncheon was delayed for 45 minutes because the bread hadn’t arrive from the local bakery. The second thing that popped into my mind was how the limousine driver I’d hired to arrive at 3:00 p.m. to whisk the bride and groom away still wasn’t there by 3:20. I remembered how I stood by myself in the parking lot, fretting and worrying, instead of mingling inside with the guests.

The biggest surprise to me as I recalled that day, though, was that I was still blaming myself for these two minor glitches. I call them minor because no one else was bothered by them. As for the bread, the guests were mingling and chatting, happily drinking champagne and eating appetizers until the luncheon started. And my daughter and son-in-law weren’t anxiously waiting for the limousine: they were inside having a great time!

Yet, here I was, many years after the wedding, still hosting the inner critic with its familiar “shoulds”: “You should have called the bakery on the morning of the wedding and confirmed the time for the luncheon to begin. You should have called the limo company and made sure they had the time right for arriving.”

Dis-Indentifying from the Inner Critic

Realizing how ridiculous it was for me to still be blaming myself after all these years, I asked myself if there was a way to silence that inner critic for good regarding this special day in my life. I decided to try a technique called dis-identifying—that is, not treating the inner critic voice as an authentic, fixed feature of myself. Dis-identifying in this way can take many forms. Some people find it helpful to give the critic a name: “Oh, it’s Ms. Nag again.” Doing this keeps you from identifying with the voice as an immutable part of your personality.

A metaphor my husband likes to use is to imagine that the inner critic is a voice on a stage, and you’re in the balcony listening to it. I decided to try this. I imagined myself in the balcony. There was the critic, onstage, going on and on about bread and a limousine that I, in the audience, couldn’t care less about. In fact, it was boring to listen to.

Then I considered what (as an audience member) would have made for better onstage viewing and listening. The answer was easy: a focus on all the positives from the wedding. After all, they far outweighed the negatives in both number and intensity:

  1. The beauty and emotional impact of the ceremony itself, which the bride and groom had planned with the officiate who was none other than my husband—the bride’s own father.
  2. How my daughter had asked our town’s beloved high school music teacher to play the piano for the ceremony, which made the occasion special for so many people in the room.
  3. The tears that came to my eyes as my daughter danced her first dance with her father to a song she’d chosen: Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
  4. My son’s carefully prepared—and hilarious—toast to the bride and groom.
  5. The gathering together of so many people who were dear to me.

Recalling all of this worked to silence the inner critic. Does any wedding take place without a single glitch? I don’t think so, and yet this was the impossible standard I’d been holding myself to all these years. I’d been clinging to an idea of how I thought things should be, and in doing so, had continue to feed the inner critic and pollute my treasured memories of that day.

By dis-identifying from the inner critic, I was able to look at the wedding from a different perspective. I felt good about how hard I’d worked to make it a special day for my daughter and son-in-law. And I also felt compassion for the mother-of-the-bride who, all dressed up, had stood alone in the parking lot for a half hour, while everyone else was inside, having fun.

Dis-identifying in this way immunized me from anything the inner critic might try to say that could interfere with the joy I felt as I remembered that day. In fact, a warm sense of emotional well-being led to a big smile coming over my face.

I hope you’ll try one of these dis-identifying techniques the next time your inner critic shows up. You’ll recognize that the critic is present because you’ll start to direct self-criticism and blame at yourself. When this happens, begin by reminding yourself that, although you can sometimes learn from past mistakes, beating yourself up over them serves no useful purpose and will only make you feel bad about yourself.

Then, dis-identify with that negative inner voice, either by giving it a name that’s not associated with you or by imagining it’s on a stage and you’re a neutral third-party in the balcony being forced to listen to its negative and boring chatter.

– © 2016 Toni Bernhard.