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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cognition: Dostoyevsky's White Bear and "Ironic Processes"

Brandon Keim writes:

It’s one of the more frustrating aspects of human nature: The harder we try not to say or do or think something, the more likely we are to slip — and often at the worst possible time. But maybe science can help.

More than a decade after the inability of a Dostoevsky protagonist to stop thinking about a white bear inspired his first experiments, Harvard University psychologist Daniel Wegner has become one of the world’s foremost experts on what are now known as ironic processes.

Using ingenious experiments to reveal the brain’s hidden machinations, Wegner and others have found that our brains expend steady, conscious effort to avoid talking about ex-girlfriends on first dates, sending putts off the green, or letting slip the real reason you were late for work.

But when our conscious minds are stressed and preoccupied — by, for example, a desire not to screw up — a subconscious process devoted to guarding against the mistake slips through. Unwanted thoughts pop into the forefront of your mind.

“Even though your conscious mind is trying to do the right thing, the unconscious mind is looking for the worst. It’s trying to protect you, but it’s actually more resistant to distraction than the conscious mind,” said Wegner. A bit of distraction “will unveil the process that’s looking for the worst that could happen.”

link: Why You Can’t Keep Your Foot Out of Your Mouth | Wired Science |


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