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Once a thought is in our heads, we can’t suppress it and trying to only causes us misery. Dr. Laurie Santos explains why our brains work in this way and hears from real people who have confronted and overcome disruptive thoughts and bad memories and found happiness in the process.

To learn more. . .

Dan Wegner’s research

Colin Sheehan’s website

Jamie Pennebaker’s website 

Eve Ekman website

The Greater Good Science Center

Links to references from this episode:

“The Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner was interested in these effects, which he referred to as ironic processes.”

Wegner, D. M. (1997). When the antidote is the poison: Ironic mental control processes. Psychological Science, 8(3), 148-150.

“Wegner created a version of Dostoevsky’s polar bear challenge as an experiment with college students.”

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 53(1), 5.

“A topic that’s usually verboten for golfers to speak of… The Yips.”

“College students told not to think about a particular person before bed end up dreaming about that person more often.”

Wegner, D. M., Wenzlaff, R. M., & Kozak, M. (2004). Dream rebound: The return of suppressed thoughts in dreams. Psychological Science, 15(4), 232-236.

“And soccer players told not to shoot a penalty kick to a specific location tend to look at that exact forbidden spot, which is a problem since players tend to aim where they look.”

Bakker, F. C., Oudejans, R. R., Binsch, O., & Kamp, J. (2006). Penalty shooting and gaze behavior: Unwanted effects of the wish not to miss.

“Dan Wegner— who devised the white bear experiment — also studied these ironic effects on the golf course.”

Wegner, D. M., Ansfield, M., & Pilloff, D. (1998). The putt and the pendulum: Ironic effects of the mental control of action. Psychological Science, 9(3), 196-199.

“It’s April 11, 1961 and Adolf Eichmann has just entered his bullet-proof dock at a special tribunal in Jerusalem.”

“He joined a project that invited survivors to give videotaped testimony of what they had endured at the hands of the Nazis.”

“Immediately after telling these awful stories, survivors felt… better.”

Pennebaker, J. W., Barger, S. D., & Tiebout, J. (1989). Disclosure of traumas and health among Holocaust survivors. Psychosomatic medicine.

“Those who wrote about traumas ended up going to the doctor at about half the rate as people in the control conditions.”

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. Guilford Press.

“Since his initial research back in the 1980s, many scientists have seen the same effects of setting traumatic memories down on paper.”

Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. Guilford Press.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Smyth, J. M. (2016). Opening up by writing it down: How expressive writing improves health and eases emotional pain. Guilford Publications.

“The Stanford neuroscientist James Gross showed his poor test subjects graphic medical footage of a patient’s arm being amputated.”

Gross, J. J. (1998). Antecedent-and response-focused emotion regulation: divergent consequences for experience, expression, and physiology. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(1), 224.

“In one study, subjects were asked to stick their arms in very, very cold water for as long as they could take, and then rate the experience on a scale from 0 no pain at all to 10 maximum agony.”

Cioffi, D., & Holloway, J. (1993). Delayed costs of suppressed pain. Journal of personality and Social Psychology, 64(2), 274.

“But as researcher Wendy Mendes and her colleagues have found out, that’s pretty much the worst thing we can do.”

Karnilowicz, H. R., Waters, S. F., & Mendes, W. B. (2018). Not in front of the kids: Effects of parental suppression on socialization behaviors during cooperative parent–child interactions. Emotion.

“The Buddha himself realized that these are not going away. In fact, the continued existence of pain— or what Buddhists call dukkha— is so important that it is considered the first of the four noble truths.”

The Host

Dr. Laurie Santos

Dr. Laurie Santos is Professor of Psychology and Head of Silliman College at Yale University. Professor and podcast host Dr. Laurie Santos is an expert on human cognition and the…