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Ever been driving and had a bizarre urge to veer across the side of a bridge? That’s an intrusive thought, and a totally normal one. Ever wanted to stick your hand in a fire? Same deal. If it’s any consolation, according to one piece of research, 90 per cent of people have at least one of these thoughts every day
Picture the scene: you’re a highly regarded, successful psychologist living in Victorian England. You’re sitting happily around a hearth in a suitably decadent home with a cup of tea, surrounded by your nearest and dearest. Your son has come to visit from afar. He has recently sired an heir in turn, and you’ve just been introduced to the little sprog. After some dutiful cooing, you lean back in your chair, feeling quite content with your lot. Suddenly, completely unbidden, you have a strange urge to fling the newborn into the roaring fire. What the hell do you do?
This scenario might seem shocking, even completely unthinkable, but it actually happens (in different iterations) very frequently. As the story goes, it was after experiencing this disturbing experience that psychiatrist William James began exploring those brief moments when thoughts occur that are completely out of our control and seem to represent something that we are abjectly adverse to. A century-and-a-bit later, the psychiatric field has got it sussed. These thoughts are known as ‘intrusive thoughts’, and they happen to pretty much everyone with startling regularity.
Put simply, ‘intrusive thoughts’ are unsolicited, involuntary thoughts, images or impulses conjured up by your brain that cause unpleasantness and confusion. Ever been driving and had a bizarre urge to veer across the side of a bridge? That’s an intrusive thought, and a totally normal one. Ever wanted to stick your hand in a fire? Same deal. If it’s any consolation, according to one piece of research, 90 per cent of people have at least one of these thoughts every day: they usually only last five seconds, and for most people, they’re manageable and ignorable, barring the poor souls who suffer from OCD or other anxiety disorders (
These kind of distressing thoughts are not the only kind of thoughts you could construe as ‘bad’. In a clever bit by Louis C.K. (I’m sorry to be a cliche of a twentysomething white male BUT), he claims that “you know you love someone when you share your deepest, innermost racism with them”. This point is elaborated on in a sketch where he talks more about thoughts you know to be stupid but also ones that are so, so easy to entertain. “Of course children who have nut allergies need to be protected. Of course,” he stresses, “but maybe… maybe if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die”. It’s savage, definitely, but it highlights something about the way people think that isn’t really addressed: sometimes, we think things that we know we shouldn’t be thinking. Jesse McCartney concurs: “this feeling’s taking control of me / and I can’t help it”. What a beautiful soul.
This is because the human mind contains a rich framework of constantly firing thoughts, feelings, sensitivities, impulses and potential actions – alongside a shitload more elements behind the scenes. It’s an absolute maelstrom up in there, and for all the talk of the brain being the most powerful and penetrating tool in the known universe, it’s still just an organ. It’s fallible. The pseudo-scientific myth that we only use ten per cent of our brains at one time is definitely false. There’s a lot happening at a given time, it’s just that little of it is especially cogent or profound. A surprisingly small amount is under your conscious control. I’d wager my trousers that you’ve spent a couple of nights of your life trying to sleep but getting carried along in a half-conscious loop of weird thoughts, memories and possibilities instead.
Let’s be clear though: most of our thoughts would have soporific effects on those who could read them. Although as a human I’m capable of spending my time thinking about great philosophical questions, the correct make-up of chemical compounds, the inexorable futility of our existences etc etc, I mostly devote my daydreaming time querying why words like ‘eldritch’ went out of fashion. I wonder what happened to Miss Claudette on Orange is the New Black heaps. I have, err, salacious thoughts. So far, so mundane. But occasionally, I – and almost everyone else – have thoughts that err on the side of racism, sexism, a cohort of other -isms. They become a potential problem.
The truth is that our brains, for all their power, are extraordinarily susceptible. The easiest example to give here would be that of advertising, whose efficacy has been proven countless times. They are also acquiescent to cultural narratives. You can consider yourself above it all, but that seems very unlikely considering the way our brain processes information, even in the form of stories, and analyses it. So every time you hear a complaint about the Māori scholarship rates or ‘dole-bludgers’, your subconscious internalises it even though you know empirically that a history of gross colonisation necessitates affirmative action and that even today Māori are systematically disadvantaged, or that most fraud in terms of dollars is committed by white-collar crims. That’s not to say that every morally questionable thought that pops into your brain is necessarily caused by societal influence – as intrusive thoughts demonstrate, some things do occur in a vacuum – but it’s probably worth interrogating these thoughts and wondering where they come from; who out there aids them and abets them?
This is not to downplay the importance of thoughts, no matter how fatuous or esoteric. If you posit “Never have I ever typed something into Google I’d be embarrassed to share with the group” in a game of Never Have I Ever, everyone will drink, no matter how candid they are with their porn predilections. This is borne partly out of societal pressure, maybe, but a root cause can be attributed to the importance of having inner thoughts and feelings entirely your own. Indeed, beginning to keep secrets is an integral moment of a child’s development. There’s a comfort in realising that no one can follow our synaptic links, despite what we might think in more paranoid moments. Moral qualms about ‘thought policing’ are valid – the gap between thought, action and ideology is a yawning one, and the idea of censoring our thoughts is unpalatable. It is clear that thoughts are what offer us our internality and fulfilment.
A further fly in the ointment is the question of how you can tell whether a thought is bad – or even if mere ‘thoughts’ can be bad at all. It’s a truism of history that most brilliant thoughts and thinkers often subverted prevailing orthodoxy, and being terrified of amending the status quo when things are failing is obviously a less-than-ideal scenario. As a rule of thumb, I gently suggest ignoring thoughts that could be harmful for people who are already harmed, and avoid stating thoughts that would effectively shit on people’s lived experiences. And, unfortunately, thoughts can be consuming – while in and of themselves they’re harmless, they’re obviously necessary for action to occur and an integral part of what makes up your personal beliefs. Tread with caution.
If intrusive thoughts teach us anything, it’s that the way we think – like the way our dreams happen – don’t have any kind of overarching logic or linearity. There is no reason to feel guilty or dreadful because of the odd ‘bad’ thought. It is this correspondent’s view that all thoughts are part of our brain’s natural creativity and curiosity. Instead, interrogate what they mean; wonder why they happen; feel normal and go back to idly fantasising about the bae that you occasionally make fleeting eye contact with during tutorials. In the words of Mad-Eye Moody (or Barty Crouch, Jr, I guess), “constant vigilance” – but don’t forget to enjoy your thoughts too. The ability to create them is precious. Fucking relish it.
If you are having trouble controlling ‘Invasive Thoughts’ or think you might be experiencing symptoms of OCD, go see your local GP or peruse the internet for your nearest specialist xx.
Common Intrusive Thoughts
That person posts on social media about causes. Wanker.
That man smells. Has he not heard of deodorant?
Oh, you just want to order a salad. Self-controlled legend.
She’s wearing a short dress! COME ON, WIND.
Could that person eat that sandwich in a grosser way?
That person looks funny and they are Asian. Uh oh.
I could stab you right now. I could kill you. Security wouldn’t move fast enough.
I wonder what would happen if I pushed her over?
This house would be easy to set on fire [really common, apparently].
I could just jump off this bridge right now.
That knife looks sharp… I wonder what would happen if I cut myself on it?