“Don’t Think of a Blue Elephant!”: How the Brain Processes a Negative

Don't think of a blue elephant! Whoops, too late.If I tell you, “Don’t think of a blue elephant,” what happens? You think of a blue elephant, of course! (If you don’t, check your pulse. You may be dead.)

What’s up with that? The conventional answer is, “The brain can’t process a negative.” But if the brain can’t process a negative, phrases that contain a negative (like “the brain can’t process a negative”) can’t be processed by the brain. But  they can. The brain understands perfectly well what “don’t think about a blue elephant” means. The task is clear. The cause of the failure is somewhere else.

Language and the Imagination

The issue is that, to understand what someone is saying, your unconscious mind, you imagination, puts the words together into things it understands, out of its library of remembered and imagined things—events, images, sounds, thoughts, sensations, and so on. That means that, to know what you’re not supposed to think about, your mind has to understand what the words “blue elephant” mean, which is quite hard to do unless you imagine elephant and color it blue. By which time, of course, it’s too late!

But that’s not the end of the story. Once the mind has the image of the blue elephant, it can now act on the “don’t think about it part.” How? By averting the mind’s eye from the image and focusing on something else instead. Or by trying to erase the image that it just created. Both these processes tend to be only partly successful.

Whether this partial success is good or bad depends on context.Telling someone who is deeply in love, “Don’t think about your sweetheart!” gets a smile.

Victory Goes to the Vivid

The other thing you should know is that the most vivid, emotionally powerful part of a statement is the one that wins. Suppose I said, “Don’t think of the junk mail you got yesterday; think of an adorable blue baby elephant giving itself a bath in the duck pond in a city park on a summer’s day with local children laughing delightedly on the banks.” Do you even remember what the first part of that sentence was?

When we offer alternatives: “Don’t think about X, think about Y instead,” we give direction and focus, especially if X is less interesting than Y, or presented in a boring way. But when we don’t offer alternatives, we’re left with only the one thing to think about. So when I say, “Quick! Don’t think about a blue elephant!” there are technically an infinite number of other things for you to think about, but they’re awfully theoretical. To make the transition, somebody needs to drop the other shoe.

Don’t Say Don’t

That’s why, if you call out to a child who’s carrying a precarious lunch tray, “Don’t drop it!”, they’ll drop it. Dropping it is the first film clip that comes to mind. The second film clip to come to mind—walking more carefully—will catch up and replace the first one after a second or two, and if it doesn’t arrive too late to save the tray, all is well.

It’s sort of a dirty trick to clutter people’s minds and emotions with all these painful imagined failures. Instead of saying, “Don’t drop it!”, calling out, “Careful with that tray!” creates a film clip of someone moving with exaggerated care. That’s what you wanted in the first place. People would live calmer, happier lives if those around them didn’t drench them with bad imagery 24/7, and instead moved things in the right direction by saying it the way they want it.

A Slightly Exaggerated Example

  • Wrong: “Arr, matey, the bones of many a stout ship, and aye, many a brave sailorman too, lie beneath the deadly rocks beneath yon lighthouse. Don’t you steer too close, or we’ll never make it to shore alive.”
  • Right: “Arr, keep the lighthouse two points on the starboard beam, matey, and ye’ll fetch the harbor mouth on this tack with plenty of room to spare.”

Closing Thoughts

I suspect people would find life to be easier and more pleasant if we didn’t use so many don’ts, or if we at least followed a don’t with a do. And if we remember that the most vivid, emotion-laden statement is the one that will affect our listeners most strongly, so let’s go light on the unnecessarily heavy stuff, while celebrating the statisfying stuff.

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Robert Plamondon
Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. Robert's publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of reprinted classics, including Hypnotherapy of War Neuroses, which covers treating PTSD in veterans. Robert and his wife Karen sell free-range chicken and eggs at the Corvallis farmers' markets. Robert's hypnotherapy office is in downtown Corvallis.

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