23 November 2010

Don't think about homosexuality!

From a book I'm currently reading titled The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt (someone I think I'd like to have a good sit-down conversation with in consideration of pursuing a similar career):
"In [Dan] Wegner's studies, participants are asked to try hard not to think about something, such as a white bear, or food, or a stereotype.  This is hard to do.  More important, the moment one stops trying to suppress a thought, the thought comes flooding in and becomes even harder to banish. In other words, Wegner creates minor obsessions in his lab by instructing people not to obsess. Wegner explains this effect as an “ironic process” of mental control.
When controlled processing tries to influence thought (“Don’t think about a white bear!”), it sets up an explicit goal. And whenever one pursues a goal, a part of the mind automatically monitors progress, so that it can order corrections or know when success has been achieved. When that goal is an action in the world (such as arriving at the airport on time), this feedback system works well. But when the goal is mental, it backfires. Automatic processes continually check: “Am I not thinking about a white bear?” As the act of monitoring for the absence of the thought introduces the thought, the person must try even harder to divert consciousness. Automatic and controlled processes end up working at cross purposes, firing each other up to ever greater exertions. But because controlled processes tire quickly, eventually the inexhaustible automatic processes run unopposed, conjuring up herds of white bears. Thus, the attempt to remove an unpleasant thought can guarantee it a place on your frequent-play list of mental ruminations.

Now, back to me at that dinner party. My simple thought “don’t make a fool of yourself” triggers automatic processes looking for signs of foolishness. I know that it would be stupid to comment on that mole on his forehead, or to say “I love you,” or to scream obscenities. And up in consciousness, I become aware of three thoughts: comment on the mole, say “I love you,” or scream obscenities. These are not commands, just ideas that pop into my head. Freud based much of his theory of psychoanalysis on such mental intrusions and free associations, and he found they often have sexual or aggressive content. But Wegner’s research offers a simpler and more innocent explanation: Automatic processes generate thousands of thoughts and images every day, often through random association. The ones that get stuck are the ones that particularly shock us, the ones we try to suppress or deny. The reason we suppress them is not that we know, deep down, that they’re true (although some may be), but that they are scary or shameful. Yet once we have tried and failed to suppress them, they can become the sorts of obsessive thoughts that make us believe in Freudian notions of a dark and evil unconscious mind.

Now, I'm pretty certain there's much more to this than I'm grasping, and I've questioned a couple of assertions in the book so far, and I totally understand that half-a...nkled knowledge is dangerous because it opens one up to all kinds of misapplication and willy nilly interpretation.  That conceded, this concept from the book highlights much of why I think it's a fairly naive notion to "deal with" homosexuality by ignoring it or trying to minimize it.  I also have my thoughts about how this relates to the popular LDS idea that Satan spends most of his effort trying to trip up the most righteous (I've long thought of that notion as a story to explain a quite natural phenomenon), or how I think there's a balance between accepting what is while working towards worthy goals rather than settling for mediocrity just because to reach for higher is 'hard', but those are side-notes.  I'm even interested in whether the same or a similar phenomenon applies to atheists who are repulsed but fascinated by religion and end up converting to one because they just couldn't deny that "something" was pulling them towards it, which of course is very faith-confirming to already-believers.  I know, I know, so devilish of me to even consider such a notion.

But in my experience and observation, as well as my conceptualization, I think it's not about whether we think about homosexuality, as I don't believe that's even an option on the table: you're going to think about it whether you admit it or not.  I think those who believe they never think about it have essentially, unnecessarily lobotomized themselves.  You know the kind, the ones whose personality you swear is in there somewhere but which you can't seem to access.   What I think it is about is how we think about "it", and how we respond to it.

For you fundamentalists who might call me evil for proposing you not spend all of your effort trying not to think about homosexuality, or you activists who might think this is the sort of thing Evergreeners will never hear, I can attest that you'll hear from certain Evergreen presenters, even some whose overall philosophies I disagree with, that it's not about suppressing and forgetting about your homosexuality but accepting and working through it, processing it rather than sweeping it under the rug.  It's a well-recognized concept, and it's not foreign to or rejected by therapists of homosexuality.

Of course, I can also envision some people reading the above passage and seeing it as a quaint attempt to explain gospel truths we already know in science-speak to puff up man's pride (rather than believing it's a universal truth which people in all walks of life have noted, and which religious people explain with mythology and mysticism, and for which psychologists or other scientists are finding quantifiable explanations), or believing their homosexual feelings aren't "real" but are just scary thoughts they've magnified by obsessing on them.  And let's be honest, some people's "processing" ends up feeling an awful lot like sweeping under the rug.  But I think the principle many can agree on is: something you think is shameful is not going away magically by sheer will of "not thinking about it".

So...you, the same-sex attracted person: quick, don't think about homosexuality!

Anecdote: When I was in an Evergreen Conference presentation in which the speaker told us not to think about a white bear (come to think of it, I think that might be exactly the example he used...hey...is Jonathan Haidt, self-proclaimed progressive atheist, really a reparative sheep in wolf's clothing?...), a white bear immediately came to mind, of course, but I also immediately (split-second) made it go away by thinking about something else very specific (I forget what) and tuning out the speaker, until I decided I'd proven enough to myself and should probably listen to the speaker, at which point I'm pretty sure the white bear came prancing onto the stage of mind in a tutu.

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