Are thoughts real things?

We think of thoughts as transient experiences that don’t have a real existence. They come, they go. But when we treat them as if they are real objects, we gain some control over them.

Pablo Briñol and his colleagues in Madrid asked people to write down a thought and then either keep it or tear it up and throw it away. That moment of either keeping or throwing away the thought changes how much the thought will then affect the person.

In one study, people wrote about something they liked, or something they didn’t like, about their bodies.

Some people put the paper in their pockets. Those people were more affected by what they had written. Others tore up and threw away the paper. Those thoughts didn’t seem to affect them.

This reminds us of several things. I encourage people to keep a gratitude diary. The research behind this is very encouraging. Depressed people tend to recover within a few weeks of starting to write three to five things every day that they are grateful for. Pablo Briñol’s research suggests that the act of keeping a paper copy of a thought in a safe place will increase how much it influences us. No wonder the gratitude diary is helpful.

I added something to the gratitude diary. I also encourage people to reframe negative experiences. When something moderately unpleasant happens, I ask them to think of at least one way they could turn that negative into a positive. What could you learn? How could you grow? How could you use this to your advantage? How could it benefit someone you care about? This reframing exercise seems to help my clients be more resilient.

On the other hand, for years I have offered an assignment to people who are deeply bothered by a memory. I ask them to write the memory out in detail. They then read it, either to themselves, or better, to a loved one. Then they burn the paper. This Write-Read-Burn assignment has helped people to shake off some very unpleasant thoughts and memories. Briñol’s research shows the empirical value behind the Write-Read-Burn assignment.

Thoughts are real. Their effects are real. In the bible, Jesus suggested that lusting after someone is like the sin of adultery, and certainly in psychology we find this is true. What we rehearse in our minds becomes more and more likely.Yet we feel justified in thinking all kinds of thoughts, never considering that some thoughts are better to think than others.

Warning: Weird story follows.

Several years ago I was trying to get a support group going for Near-Death experiencers. They felt insecure and isolated, and I thought a good support group would help them. I took a few of them around to various organizations, and I’d introduce them, they’d tell their stories of dying, tunnels, lights, and meeting Grandma at the light. They were sent back, and there they were, telling us their experiences.

After the luncheon at one meeting, Ann, one of my NDE-ers leaned over to me and confessed, “I did a terrible thing.” I was extremely doubtful. She told me that after her NDE, she had moments when she’d read other people’s minds. It was involuntary. She didn’t want to do it, but the thoughts would just come clearly into her mind.

One day Ann needed to run to the store. She could only find some very beat up old shoes she’d used for painting, so she slipped them on. As she pushed her cart down the aisle, she hear the woman behind her think, “Those are the ugliest shoes I have ever seen.”

Ann turned, smiled, and said, “They are ugly, aren’t they?”

The poor woman gasped, staggered backward, and ran from the store. Then Ann felt ashamed that she’d frightened her.

I said, “No, you did what you were supposed to do. That woman needed to learn that thoughts are real, and that she needs to learn to control her own thoughts.” Ann seemed somewhat less upset. I am pretty sure I was right. Of course, that is always the case, and it often turns out I am wrong.

Pablo Briñol’s research, “Treating Thoughts as Material Objects Can Increase or Decrease Their Impact on Evaluation” was published in Psychological Science, November 2012. You can read the abstract here: