When it comes to clearing our minds of unwanted thoughts, I have learnt that it is best to take a multi-faceted approach. I have compiled my best advice in clearing the mind of negative thoughts and patterns of unhelpful thinking. I have paired each anecdotal piece of advice with the latest neuroscientific research.
The science and treatment of unwanted thoughts
Neuroscientists at Brown University have suggested that the key to ‘optimal inattention’ lies in preoccupying the mind. With the ability to concentrate our attention on something specific, we engage in the opposite act of ignoring other things. In their 2015 study, the researchers at Brown identified how the brain achieved ‘optimal inattention’ by changing the synchronisation of brainwaves between different brain regions. Their study consisted of telling participants that they would feel a tap on the left middle finger or big toe and ignore the other side. The results showed that humans could direct attention to one side but not both, suggesting that distraction is an effective method of avoiding rumination.
A 2012 Cambridge University study on brain imaging showed that adverse events and trauma are often dealt with using memory control. Roland Benoit, the lead author of the study, explained that there were two precise suppression methods, ‘by shutting down the remembering system… the other by facilitating the remembering system to occupy awareness with a substitute memory’. Understanding these brain functions will help scientists better understand how traumatic memories are dealt with and how this can improve treatments for those with mental illnesses hinged on traumatic experiences.
Substitution is the process of imagining or reworking our experience to pretend we are in a different situation, much like rose-tinted glasses. Cambridge researchers found that the substitution method engaged the caudal prefrontal cortex and the mid-ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Their research shows that the mind can be cleared through various techniques which activate several different neural pathways.
Meditation is one method of clearing the mind that demonstrates effective changes in brain behaviour to reduce the pain of those with unwanted thoughts. Rebecca Erwin Wells, M.D, explains that her experiences in yoga and meditation classes as a student had a significant impact on her understanding of health. Her studies at Wake Forest Baptist Health have demonstrated positive trends in the brain areas associated with introspection and thought. Her studies have also shown that meditation can work towards decreased neural activity in the regions associated with pain and increased neural activity related to controlling emotion.
Neuroscientist Catherine Kerr’s team have found that it is possible to manipulate your alpha rhythms to switch attentional focus through mindfulness training. Their research expands on the understanding of how mindfulness can help people ignore depressive thoughts. Kerr said, ‘We’re linking different ways of looking at the brain that doesn’t usually come into dialogue with one another.’ Furthermore, Lund University, Sweden, have found that mindfulness treatment can be as effective as individual cognitive behavioural therapy in patients with depression and anxiety. One way to practice mindfulness is to engage in guided meditation, which is known to aid in coping abilities and allow the mind to be clear to be contemplative.
These five methods of coping with unwanted thoughts should aid us in understanding how to clear our minds. If you find that a particular technique does not work, try the next.