That’s Men: White bear experiments may hold the key to mastering addictions

Tue, Jun 18, 2013, 01:00

Back in the day, the Catholic Church went to great lengths to discourage young, and old, people from thinking about sex. If they had known about the “white bear” experiments, they might have taken a different tack.

Unfortunately, the white bear experiments did not take place until the 1980s, and by then it was too late.

The attempt to prevent people from entertaining thoughts of sex was fairly straightforward: if you “took pleasure” in “bad” thoughts, you were committing a mortal sin and if you then died suddenly, for instance in your sleep during the night, you would go straight to hell for the rest of eternity. Safer by far to push those sinful thoughts out of your mind.

All the time, the stern men and women of the church were unwittingly stoking the fires of a sexual revolution. In 1987, psychologists led by Daniel Wegner of Harvard University showed an audience a film about white bears. The viewers were then given a task to perform.

Half of them were told that, while performing the task, they were to make every attempt not to entertain thoughts about white bears. The other half were told nothing in relation to the movie they had just seen. The two groups were told to hit a button whenever they thought of a white bear. Those who had been told not to think about white bears pressed the button significantly more often than those who had been given no such instruction.


Bad news for Christian Brothers
So the attempts to suppress white bear thoughts led instead to an increase in the incidence of these thoughts. Bad news for the Christian Brothers and the other religious people attempting to keep our minds pure and sinless.

This phenomenon all goes further than thoughts of white bears and the like. Even attempts to suppress one’s awareness of pain has been found to increase that awareness.

We don’t really know why this should be. One theory is that the brain, once instructed not to think of, say, white bears, actively monitors itself for the forbidden thought but this has the effect of keeping that very thought closer to the surface of our awareness, and ready to break through at any time.

All of this is why a technique called “urge surfing” is instead beginning to be used in helping people maintain recovery from addiction. Here, people are encouraged to put their attention on the physical sensation of craving, say for a drug. They don’t try to suppress thoughts of the drug but whenever they drift into thoughts as they are doing this, they are encouraged to gently switch the focus back to the physical sensation.

They observe various aspects of the sensation: extent, intensity, tightness, temperature and so on.

Gradually the sensation dies away as all physical sensations do, whereas thoughts can go on forever. It’s a useful method to bring to our minor addictions too.

You can learn more about urge surfing at bit.ly/urgesurfing which is the very interesting website of Australian psychiatrist Chris Walsh,


Suppression backfires
Getting back to those attempts to suppress sinful thoughts, it is remarkable to consider that all of those lectures in all of those religious doctrine classes about not entertaining thoughts of sex were making it all bubble around ever more fiercely in our brains.

The same must go for those missions, where visiting priests thundered from the pulpit for weeks about sin, roaring and condemning icons such as Elizabeth Taylor and Edna O’Brien.

The books of Edna O’Brien, in case you don’t know, were seen by these guys as more or less representing the end of civilisation. Now, most of us probably didn’t know what Edna O’Brien looked like – her books were banned and burned so we hadn’t read her either nor, I expect, had her detractors – but we did know what Elizabeth Taylor looked like.

So we left those missions with images, not of comely maidens, but of the much-married, much-
divorced Elizabeth Taylor, in her heyday, dancing at the crossroads of our Catholic minds.


Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@
yahoo.com) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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