“One trembles to think of that mysterious thing in the soul, which…in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts.” —Herman Melville

Our unvoiced thoughts scare and shame us; we tend to get off on cheap thrills and the misery of others. Consider the paradoxes: We gush over a newborn, then flash to how easy it might be to crack open his head. We console a pretty friend about a bad one-night stand, and then privately savor her humiliation.

It is surprising how little control we seem to have over the timing and content of “bad” thoughts. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was among the first to struggle with wicked thoughts. In his Psychology of the Unconscious, he observes that every person has a “shadow self.” This self, he explains, is the unconscious part of our psyche, a repository of base animal instincts and dark desires. We repress it—but only for so long before “a possible outburst.”

Where does this dark side come from? The part of the mind we don’t identify with and over which we have little say. If, as neuroscience often describes it, a set of cognitive processes gives rise to the “I” that we think of as ourselves—our normal, decent, rational side—other processes must give rise to a darker, irrational mind, in which intrusive thoughts lurk.

Guilt and self-disgust tend to wear down willpower, and the exiled thoughts return even more frequently. Distractions backfire, too. Suppress, surface, suppress, surface. … Beat down the thought at bedtime and it will rebound in your dreams. Anyone would find this cycle maddening, but for some it’s a dangerous spiral worsened by, depression and stress. Increased efforts to suppress thoughts may lead to stronger rebounds.

Writing is a way to impose order on the unruly voices in our heads, helping to tame and reframe them. Contemplation helps us realize what’s important: We all have shameful or scary thoughts, but what we do with them and the significance we attach to them are key. We can embrace the idea that our dark musings have no real meaning and let them go. Or we can find a way to parlay them into an understanding of ourselves and others. Can a thought—however shameful, morbid, perverted, prejudiced, bloodthirsty, masochistic, or just plain petty—become an object of contemplation? A source of creativity? Empathy? An insight into an unconscious agenda?

“That’s where imagination comes in,” says Eric Wilson. “More imaginative people are able to envision dark thoughts in a way that stimulates expansion in thought and feeling.”

Priyanka Banik

Priyanka Banik

Business Development Executive

IRIANS – The Neuroscience Institute


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