In White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, Daniel Wegner explores the topics of consciousness, obsession, suppression, and mental control. This is an insightful read for anyone interested in general psychology, not just those suffering from OCD or some other mental disorder (although I did find much of the material particularly applicable to OCD). If you’ve ever been plagued by a disturbing image, had trouble dieting, or even just had a song stuck in your head, this book has something to say to you.
The core of Wegner’s theory is that we are plagued by obsessive thoughts, that is, we have unwanted thoughts that keep coming back to us, because we actively try to suppress them. Attempting to suppress a thought actually increases the frequency with which it will reoccur later. Clearly this has a lot to do with what happens with OCD. The core of the disorder is that we get stuck on a thought (the obsessive part), primarily a disturbing or distressing one, and can’t get away from it no matter how hard we try (the compulsive part). But this is relevant for everyone. If you’ve ever tried to quit drinking or smoking, or even lose weight, you are familiar with this cycle. You set strict rules for yourself and promise to stick to them. But, inevitably, you are reminded of alcohol, nicotine, or carbs wherever you go. You see someone eating a delicious-looking bowl of pasta, or you go to a party and everyone is drinking and lighting up. Even when there appears to be no obvious trigger, you feel the craving. Arguably, there is a lot of chemical craving going on too, but the chemicals are just as active in your brain and nervous system. It seems like no matter how hard you try, the reminders are just too much and you eventually give in.
This is where White Bears comes into play. Wegner argues, with convincing evidence, that when this happens, we shouldn’t keep looking for distractions or put all our energies into suppressing the unwanted thought, which is what we naturally tend to do. Instead, we should sit with the thought and let ourselves habituate, or get used to it. The book gets its title from a famous series of experiments you might have heard of. If you tell someone not to think about a white bear, what are they going to do? Think about white bears of course. The act of trying to suppress a thought automatically brings that thought to mind. It is the same with any unwanted thought. When we stop telling ourselves to not think about something, we give our minds room to let go of the thought naturally. Rather than constantly being on guard against the thought, we can discard it in time like a child discards a toy they got tired of. This theory bares striking resemblance to the theories about mindfulness, which promotes the same concept of sitting with our thoughts in order to let go of them.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone suffering from OCD or any other type of anxiety disorder, as well as anyone else who just has an interest in this type of cognitive psychology. It well definitely make you think twice about the way you think !