Can’t get you out of my head

Have you ever had that experience? You start humming a track that you’ve listened to on the radio or TV and you just can’t stop humming it no matter what you do. It’s even worse too when the track that you’re humming is awful! Who can forget the classic Agadoo (you really hoped you’d forgotten that, didn’t you?) or Joe Dulce’s Shuddup Your Face. Does this experience sound familiar? You’re not alone…

The fabulous blog Psyblog (like Powerchange its psychology thinking is right up-to-date) untangles some of the mysteries of the mind that we are only just discovering. One article discusses what is known as Post-Suppression Rebound Effect and may well provide answers as to how it can be so difficult to get that thought out of your mind. (The good news is with some very simple techniques you can get that thought out; certainly, the meaning that that thought brings to you can be changed to something much more desirable.)

So, Post-Suppression Rebound Effect (or as it is more colloquially  referred to as ‘Pain in the Neck’): what is going on there?

That feeling, when you’re lying in bed, of: “Did I lock the car?” happens to many of us. The natural tendency to say to yourself (and, indeed, for many people to say to us) is: “Forget about it.” Psychologists such as Daniel Wegner (1987), Wenzlaff and Wegner (2000) and Petrie (1998) among others have investigated the outcomes of Forget about it to discover how valid such an approach is. The startling research discovered that this just doesn’t work! In fact, our mind (the unconscious mind) will actively seek to check whether we have forgotten about something (especially if there is a strong emotional connection involved) and will seek to remind us that we’ve forgotten about it! In other words, the more we try to forget about it the more it will fight to be remembered. This has been dubbed the Post-Suppression Rebound Effect: supposedly because suppression simply results in the thought rebounding back even more strongly into our minds.

Want a very simple example of this? Well, I want you to spend five minutes absolutely determined that you will not, on any account, think about a blue elephant. Don’t whatever you do think about that blue elephant. Next, throughout this day when the image of the blue elephant comes into your mind I want you to not think about the blue elephant. In fact, why not tell the blue elephant to go away and see what happens. (I’d be very interested by the way so please do post your blue elephant comments below.)

So, now we’re all thinking about blue elephants you can see what’s happening: the mind will repeatedly bring back the memory, as we seek to remove it. Blue elephants (no, I’m not making them blue any more) are trivial in the big scheme of things. Clearly, there are many more traumatic events that we experience. As soon as there is a strong emotional connection to the event it makes the act of simply forgetting about it even more difficult. We are hot-wired to emotion and the unconscious mind is the emotional centre in our heads. A strong emotional connection ties many chemical reactions with that memory fixing is strongly in our experience. Like an elastic band, simply pushing it away will cause the memory to snap back and probably hit us in the face recalling the experience as painfully as when we first experienced it. It doesn’t necessarily get easier either in the long-term. Trinder and Salkovskia (1994) found that even with practice the rebound effect will occur in the long-term as well.

Perhaps, then, being determined to forget it is the problem: we’re just trying too hard. Wenzlaff and Wegner (2000) studied the negative impacts of the rebound effect when they studied substance cravers. The group that intentionally suppressed the urge to stop binge eating or smoking did worse than the group who used distraction techniques such as doing other things enjoyable and not having opportunities to indulge. It would seem in this case that absence makes the heart grow forgetful.

What can be done then? How can I forget if my mind is so determined to make me remember? We need to change what the event means to us. Psychologists call this changing the sub-modalities. What that means is changing the properties of the experience and as a result what the experience now means to us. There are all sorts of things that we can do to the properties of the experience. We can change its size, colour, shape, rub it out and alter any number of other properties that we want to change. If we change the memory’s properties then we break the connection between that event and the emotion that was associated with it. A kind of psychological anaesthetic, as Andrew Sercombe from calls it. This process works because rather than simply trying to forget about what happened – and the inevitable rebound effect that we will sooner or later experience – we actively choose to change what the memory’s properties are and therefore change what it means to us. Changing its properties means that it can no longer hold the same memories for us. I find it so much more satisfying when I see actively seek to change something. I trust myself and I trust God to help me make that change.

“How do you know this sub-modalities thing works?”, I hear you say. How many blue elephants have you seen in the wild? If you can make the elephant blue you can make it any colour, size, shape etc. you like. Go on, do it now. What colour did you make it?