How to `pkill` unwanted thoughts

Your brain acts like a computer. How would you like the ability to kill any processes that you’d rather not have running?

I developed a technique to do exactly this while recovering from a series of manic episodes that lead to intense, unwanted paranoia.  One of the difficult things about dealing with delusions is that logically knowing they are delusions doesn’t make them go away – it just makes them seem that much more sinister and unwanted. If you can’t shake the suspicion that you were Hitler in a former life, knowing that this is a ridiculous thing to believe doesn’t make you feel better. It makes you feel ridiculous and broken, in addition to feeling insanely guilty for no good reason.

I developed this technique to solve the problem of persistent, unwanted thoughts. I recently shared this it with a friend, who said,

“ your imagination exercise has helped me get a full night’s rest for the first time in months. It’s unbelievable. I can actually get through the night most nights now without waking up in a panic at 5 am.”

(Unnamed friend whom I told about this technique)

Here’s the technique. If it works for you, please share  it with anyone who needs it.

Stack Overflowing Yourself

This technique works something like a stack smashing attack.  In order to ‘break out’ of a running process, you’re going to push a bunch of frames on your mental stack, and eventually the bottom layers of the stack – the calling frames – just get forgotten because your hardware isn’t built for the von neumann architecture.

Your brain is a machine designed to tell a primate stories, not compute recursive functions. Your hardware doesn’t support many stack frames.

The simple version of the technique goes like this: write down the thought that is bothering you on a piece of paper, and then throw the paper away.

Writing the thought down frames it. Instead of the thought consuming you, feeling like it is you, the thought becomes something that you are observing. The unwanted thought moves from being a piece of code in execution, running on your processor, to a piece of data under observation.

Maybe this won’t work the first time. Maybe you don’t have paper handy. Maybe you’re just trying to drive your car, and can’t help but feel like the songs on the radio are secret messages from the universal karma police telling you that it’s all your fault children die every day, and if you’d just be a better person, innocent people wouldn’t suffer. Maybe you can’t shake this thought, that you’ve done awful things in the past, and you must fix them, now, or else you are really just a selfish rotten person who deserves to suffer more than you already have.  When I found that happening to me, here’s what I would do:

I imagine myself  turning on the desktop computer in the apartment I lived from 2011-2013. I pull open vim, and write down as much as I can about the thought. I describe the thought, and how it makes me feel, in as much detail as possible. I imagine my fingers dancing across the keyboard, letter by letter, and I feel the visceral muscle memory of typing “esc colon w q” to save the file to disk.

I imagine dragging that file from desktop to save it on a USB stick. I imagine grabbing the USB stick from the machine, folding it shut, and bringing it to the kitchen. I remember the wood grain paneling in the kitchen, the afternoon sunbeams passing through an overgrown lemon tree, the uninspiring quartz countertops, and the dishwasher with a label that announces, “no steak knives.”

I reach into the cabinets above the stove, where a box of small plastic baggies is stored, and retrieve one that’s just about the size of the USB stick. I put the USB stick into the baggie, and take the awful thought, now written on a file, stored on a USB stick, stuffed in a baggie – and add ANOTHER stack frame, putting it inside a special pocket in my backpack.

Details make it work Better

At this point, I’ve told myself a wildly detailed story with lots of sensory hooks. The details matter. The higher level, conceptual parts of my thinking begin to lose their grip on the details of the unpleasant thought. This new story is compelling, and the primate brain can’t tell itself infinite stories at once – only a few at a time.  The sensory hooks activate the predictive processing mechanism, so the higher level concepts such as “guilt” and “blame” are unable to compete for attention with concepts like the one representing that metal door screen door that always banged shut as I left for work in the morning – sorry Brian, I wasn’t the most aware person and I bet that annoyed the hell out of you.

Your brain is a Darwinian jungle where memes compete for relevance, and sensory details are food – but only food for certain memes. Filling your brain with detailed sensory memories feeds the conceptual memes that undergird those memories. Feeding the memes that encode the ritual allows that ritual to take over the ecosystem of attention. The ritual simultaneously puts space between me and the unpleasant thought, as well as frames the unpleasant thought, as something I am observing and remembering, rather than something which is currently happening to me

Dogs have lots of hair and they often bark and are loud and might chase you. “Dogs” is a word which refers to the previous animal. This ritual puts quotation marks, (or parenthesis [ or, really, any kind of frame delimiter around the thing bothering you])” 

Then I’d hop on my bike, pedal like crazy down the street, to lawrence expressway and 101 and bike all the way to Ellis air force base where I’d toss the backpack into an open hatch on a rocket ship, and it would blast off. 

The memory wasn’t being destroyed (to address an objection raised by the internal adversary that constantly tries to make me fail) – it was being stored somewhere distant, where it could possibly be addressed later if need be.  It’s one thing for an adversary to say “it’s important! You need to think about this in case it’s true.” It was harder for the adversary to convince me that I had to think about this awful thought right in this immediate moment.

Sometimes I had to play through this ritual three or four or five times – but it always worked, eventually.  I got to a point where I could play through the ritual rapidly, at light speed, and it still worked, probably because at this point, my brain had developed a strong Bayesian prior that “I can expunge unwanted thoughts at will.”

If you’re having trouble dealing with thoughts that you’d rather not think, I hope this helps you. I still have that problem at times, but it’s only because I’m thinking unpleasant thoughts without consciously becoming aware “this thought is unpleasant, I’d rather not be thinking about it.” The moment I realize “I am thinking an unpleasant thought that I can’t let go of”, I am able to utilize this method, and – perhaps after a few round trips – it’s gone.

One thought on “How to `pkill` unwanted thoughts

  1. This matches my observation that parts of the brain that control particular “levers” of behaviour or physiology are naive and can be enticed to start or stop by being told stories. I’ll try this technique, although I’m not particularly prone to this kind or rumination…

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