Why Is the Content of Intrusive Thoughts so Awful? Part 1


I'm often asked why unwanted intrusive thoughts have such terrible content. Common ones include: murdering a friend/spouse/child/stranger, accidentally or impulsively killing oneself, fears of sexual orientation, blasphemy, sexual abuse of all kinds and variations.

You often mistakenly believe that having repeated "bad thoughts" means that you are, down deep, a "bad" person. Believe it or not, the opposite is true.

You might wonder how that can be. To answer, let's take a look at what goes into making a thought get stuck.

First, everyone--yes everyone!--has passing intrusive thoughts. They range from "Wait! Did I bring my cell phone with me?" to "What if I giggle during the sermon?" to "I can push that guy onto the tracks." These thoughts are usually quite ordinary, but they can also seem bizarre, weird, or funny. They come from out of the blue and we usually forget about them soon afterwards. Most of the time, you appreciate having intrusive thoughts. Insights are intrusive thoughts, as well as creative moments. Poets, authors, problems solvers, moms, dads--all have thoughts that intrude from out of the blue.

Second, neurologists know your brain is processing a huge number of elements at any given time. Right now, as you are reading these words, you are vaguely aware of whether you are hot or cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, what's happening with the rest of your day, do these words make sense, did you eat too big (or small) a breakfast, you have to pick up milk, dry cleaning, pick up the kid in school, make the dentist appointment, etc. Your stream of consciousness is more like a mighty river than a babbling brook! Our minds are broadband, and yet we can only process just three to five mental elements at any given time. Most of what goes through our mind never makes it into our awareness.

So, third, how does our brain know what to focus on? We focus on things that either seem dangerous, or else "violate" our expectancies. Here is what I mean by "violate": You come home, flip on the light, and hang your coat in the closet. You barely pay any attention to flipping on the light, and you barely remember doing it. But--and this is important--if you flip on the light and nothing happens, your expectation of the light going on is "violated". So you focus your attention on it. Another example: If you drive a certain way to work every day, you might barely remember driving on any given day. But if your usual right turn onto Main Street is detoured, your expectation of that right turn is "violated," and you will focus your attention on the process of getting to work. A "violated" expectation snaps your attention onto that aspect of your stream of consciousness. And the stronger the feeling you have about that "violation," the more it sticks in your mind.

Believe it or not, these three simple facts about the way your brain works--(1) everyone has passing intrusive thoughts, (2) consciousness is broadband, but we are only aware of just a few elements, and (3) we focus on things that seem dangerous or "violate" our expectancy--lay the groundwork for the content of Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.

I'll continue the explanation in the next newsletter.


Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP