Have you ever had the uncontrollable urge to laugh at a funeral?
A thought might pop into our mind that even makes ourselves shutter; We cast it off, “well that was weird.”
I recently came across a reddit thread that exposes some common impulsive thoughts that would be deemed crazy by social standards. Here are some of my favorites:
Sometimes when I’m talking to a girl, the thought just pops into my head to spontaneously start making out with her.
When riding my bike around campus I get the urge to just slap people’s butts as I ride past. Not just one gender. Anyone. It would be so easy for me to just ride off before they even knew what happened/what to do.
I get this when watching live stage. “You know, nobody could stop me in time if I just walked down the aisle, climbed up on stage and just suckerpunched the shit out of Hamlet.” I am so not a violent person, either.
When my dad died I thought it would be cool to have him taxadermied and made into a butler esc statue to put my keys and wallet in his hands when I walked into my house
Things that would be physically really easy to do, but you “never” would. Like a flick of the wheel to drive into oncoming traffic, stepping out in front of a bus, or giving someone that extra push when they’re looking over a high place. If I think about it long enough, its like I have to make a conscious effort not to turn the wheel. Freaks me out.
We can pick out some common themes here:
- Thinking about sex; Freud would argue that all our unconscious desires are motivated by sex.
- Killing someone; our animal instinct for instant power and domination suppressed by societal made laws.
- Driving against traffic or shooting someone; knowing we have this instant power at our fingertips and the urge to act on it; maybe this is why games like Grand Theft Auto are so much fun.
If you’re like me you can relate to these intrusive thoughts. Then you think, why would anyone want to feel what it’s like to get shot; that sounds painful. But we are curious creatures. We seek out experiences that we know will be painful. I like to eat habanero hot sauce that results in a ring of fire in digestive terms. Some people like Sado Massochism (have you seen the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey?). This suggests people crave new experiences, even if they’re painful. Life would be so boring without pain; in mild forms pain can cause sensation that makes us feel more alive, and gives us the capacity to appreciate comfort.
Well that’s all good and fun, but we live in a society with rules and order. If everyone acted on their impulsive thoughts, we’d surely live in a fear-ridden concrete jungle. That’s why we have self-control… Well I’m here to tell you that self control is a limited resource.
Studies have shown that when we inhibit impulsive behavior, it gets harder to do with each subsequent temptation. For instance, one experiment had participants eat radishes while fresh chocolate chip cookies were in arm’s reach. By resisting the delicious cookies, the participants drained their mental resources and actually performed worse later on an unrelated puzzle task. Resource depletion has been linked to several behavioral problems, including overeating, intellectual underachievement and impulsive aggression. The more you try to control yourself, the more likely you are to act out later.
When your willpower is depleted, impulsive thoughts that creep into your mind not only get past your filters, but suppressing them actually makes them come to mind much more frequently! This is called the rebound effect. A psychologist by the name of Wagner found evidence that when we try not to think of something, one part of our mind does avoid the forbidden thought, but another part “checks in” every so often to make sure the thought is not coming up—therefore, ironically, bringing it to mind. Like that meditation comic illustrates so well: by trying not to think of thoughts, we end up thinking about how not to think about them in an endlessly frustrating cycle.
So, knowing that we all have these unspoken impulsive thoughts, but trying to control them only leads to an eruption of more unwarranted thoughts, what can we do?
1) Distract Yourself
Pick something else to think about instead of your unwanted thought. Your chosen topic must be something genuinely engaging to you, or the “bad” thoughts will creep back in.
2) Postpone the Thought
Studies have shown that by simply setting aside a specific 30 minute timeframe in your day to worry, you give your brain an excuse to stop worrying in this moment.
3) Stop Multitasking
Your self-control resource center is overloaded when you try to do too many things at once.
Taking time for meditation and mindfulness strengthens the prefrontal cortex; it’s the most recently evolved part of the brain, and responsible for our working memory and self-control. Think of your prefrontal cortex as a zookeeper keeping all those wild “instinctual” parts of your brain in order.
It’s hard to face your weird thoughts head-on. By taking baby steps and spending time with thoughts in a controlled way, you can learn to manage them effectively.
Another form of exposure is sharing your seemingly insane thoughts with others, and more times than not, other people will have experienced similar thought patterns. I’m lucky to not have had any traumatic experiences in my life so I can usually laugh off my thoughts of wanting to drive on the wrong side of the road, but if we suppress our deepest impulses too many times, society might end up like the awful movie, “The Purge” where everyone needs one day without laws to get all their darkest impulses out of their system. I’d rather prevent that, so please, share some of your most random impulsive thoughts.
Art by Patrick Brown