The game has only one rule, and it’s a simple one: Don’t think about white bears. You can think about anything else, but you can’t think about that. Ready? Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and banish the animals from your head.
You just lost the game. Everyone loses the game. As Dostoevsky observed in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: “Try to avoid thinking of a white bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” In fact, whenever we try not to think about something, be it a white bear or the marshmallow man, that something gets trapped in the mind, stuck in the recursive loop of self-consciousness. Our attempt at repression turns into an odd fixation.
This human frailty has profound consequences. Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, refers to the failure as an “ironic” mental process. Whenever we establish a mental goal — such as trying not to think about white bears — the goal is accompanied by an inevitable follow-up thought, as the brain checks to see if we’re making progress. The end result, of course, is that we obsess over the one thing we’re trying to avoid. Wegner argues that this twitch is responsible for all sorts of afflictions, from anxiety disorder (we get anxious whenever we think about not getting anxious) to insomnia, which can occur when the drowsy brain checks to see if we’ve fallen asleep (and so we wake up).