Combining the fields of psychiatry, philosophy, and neuroscience, researchers have developed new insights into the human mind — and how to heal it
Listening to the news or reading the paper, it’s not hard to fall prey to catastrophic thoughts. Our brains are hardwired to spend more time thinking about calamities and other unpleasant experiences in order to protect ourselves in the future, so it’s no surprise if our sense of wellbeing takes a hit based on what’s happening between our ears.
But that wellbeing — an often elusive combination of happiness, satisfaction, and contentment — isn’t out of reach, no matter how dire our global and personal circumstances. As researchers have learned more about how our minds work, they’ve made some surprising discoveries about how we think, and the way those thoughts can be changed. If the right techniques are applied, it’s possible to transform our minds for the better.
Exploring Spontaneous Thought
Chandra Sripada, an associate professor in psychiatry and philosophy at the University of Michigan, has been studying different aspects of the brain for more than a decade. For him, learning when things go wrong is the start of how to make them right. Even though psychologists and philosophers have tried to understand the human mind for millennia, Sripada’s most recent work tackles an omnipresent pattern of thinking that has been almost entirely ignored: “stream of spontaneous thought.” This state of mind occurs when our brains aren’t actively engaged in any specific task. Instead of going quietly “offline,” the mind continues to putter around with different ideas, thinking as many as 300 different thoughts in a 30-minute period, as some of Sripada’s recent research shows.
“Everybody is doing this clump and jump thought, with these clumps about a topic and then jumps to something new,” Sripada says. It’s not a process that’s well understood or deeply studied, in part because of the logistical challenges of documenting such an onslaught of thoughts. In his research, Sripada has participants sit in a darkened room without any distracting stimuli and say aloud whatever comes to their mind. The transcript of this one-sided conversation is then processed by machine learning software and analyzed, with some surprising results.
First, people tend to spend equal amounts of time thinking about the past, the future, and having atemporal thoughts — things like “I hate spinach” or “homework is annoying” that aren’t tied to any timeframe. Research done outside Sripada’s lab has also suggested that thinking about the future, rather than instilling a sense of worry or fear, often leads to greater positive emotions.
Future-oriented thinking. Illustration by James O'Brien.
Sripada’s research seems to show that there’s nothing inherently bad about letting one’s mind wander in this stream of consciousness. While people might claim a desire to avoid being alone with their thoughts, the experience of his research participants isn’t negative. Instead, emotions go up and down depending on which thoughts arise. For people predisposed towards more negativity, like those who score higher on tests of neuroticism, there tends to be a higher number of negatively weighted thoughts, and even positive thoughts don’t last as long. “It’s almost like a vortex of negativity,” Sripada says.
Sripada’s team hasn’t yet begun investigating whether the patterns that appear in a person’s stream of consciousness could be modified to enhance a greater sense of wellbeing. But he says that simply understanding this type of thinking could be a huge help in diagnosing mental illnesses.
“I think the study of spontaneous thought is just at its infancy,” Sripada says. “You have to get people to even notice that a huge chunk of their day they’re doing this, and then we need a theory of it.”
Taking An Active Role
Modern psychiatrists might be the ones trying to quantify the phenomenon, but they’re hardly the first to notice the mind’s incessant chatter. For Buddhists, this was described as the monkey mind. Today, proponents of mindfulness suggest that simply being aware of this flow of thoughts can go a long way towards alleviating some of the more painful doom spirals we all occasionally enter.
Rick Hanson, a psychologist, author, and senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, argues that paying mindful attention to the present isn’t enough to provide a lasting sense of wellbeing. “We all want good changes that last,” Hanson says. “Most of experiences wash through the brain like water through a sieve.
"The question becomes, what can we do inside ourselves that promotes positive neuroplastic change?”
To address this problem, Hanson developed the HEAL method. The acronym stands for “Having a positive experience, Enriching it, Absorbing it, and Linking to positive and negative thoughts.” The positive experience can be anything from petting one’s dog to meeting a friend for coffee. From there, it’s a matter of sitting with the positive feelings for at least a few breaths and identifying the precise emotions. Excitement from the good conversation? Appreciation for the sense of kinship? Love for one’s friend? This extra bit of reflection helps the positive experience leave a deeper imprint on the brain. And for those who want to take the optional fourth step, these positive experiences can be seeded alongside negative ones to help a person overcome fears or trauma. These extra steps can literally reconfigure the brain’s synaptic network, leading people to feel a greater sense of wellbeing even if nothing in their life has materially changed.
“I’ve been meditating since 1974 and I’m a mindfulness practitioner, but I think there’s been a bias that encourages people to simply witness the stream of consciousness in a spacious, non-judgmental kind of way,” Hanson says. “Enriching means creating a lot of neural activity, which is experienced as a sustained embodied and rewarding experience. Then in absorbing, we sensitize the brain to that experience.”
Hanson says he recommends a simple daily practice called “take three” to encourage this type of positive reflection. First, pausing three times a day to briefly reflect on the good in your life. Next, for three breaths in a row, thinking about a particular trait you’d like to grow, be it self-assurance, courage, or patience. Lastly, for three minutes at the end of each day, meditating on peacefulness, contentment and love.
“You have the power to change your brain for the better,” Hanson says. “We need strengths inside to navigate the twisty roads of life, and you have the power to grow them.”
Lorraine Boissoneault is a Chicago-based writer covering science and history. She is the author of the narrative nonfiction book “The Last Voyageurs.”