Escape your thought inertia

When a negative thought is ingrained enough, our brains stop even noticing counter evidence. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Most of us assume that our brains easily and routinely change their thoughts to accommodate new information and perceptions. Yet decades of studies have shown that brains do they opposite: they shape any incoming information to fit the thoughts we already have.

This happens because of what I call thought inertia. Building new neural pathways is energy intensive, so our brains only do it as a last resort. Until that point, they just interpret any the data in a way that matches existing, well-established thoughts.

It is difficult to over-estimate the power of thought inertia. It governs so much of how we experience the world.

Here’s the example that finally made it click for me.

I’d been struggling with feeling undervalued in a working relationship. Then, out of the blue, I got a gorgeous bouquet of flowers from the person I had felt wasn’t giving me enough credit. The card said, “Thank you for all your hard work and passion for our project.”

Did my brain say, “Oh, hurray, I am actually valued”?

Did I now feel happy about the relationship?

No, and no.

Instead, I felt annoyed. I texted a friend a picture of the card and wrote, “Of course he only sees my ‘hard work’, never my smart ideas or leadership. It’s like I’m his donkey.”

The thought that my colleague didn’t value me had clearly achieved thought inertia. My brain wasn’t going to shift it for anything as paltry as counter evidence. Instead, it just interpreted the incoming data in a way that supported its existing thought.

My brain turned being sent a spontaneous bouquet of thank-you flowers into proof my contributions weren’t valued.

That’s what thought inertia will do to you if you’re not paying attention.

This example is especially relevant because studies have also shown that our brains have a negativity bias. That means that thought inertia will mostly be working in favour of you holding onto thoughts that make your life and the world seem worse.

You might be thinking nothing in your life is going right, when actually your brain is just turning good evidence into bad like mine did with the bouquet. Basically, your brain is conserving your energy by stealing your joy.

What do to about it

Here’s a quick way to get started:

  1. Write the thing that is bugging you down as a single sentence. Get specific. So my original thought would be, “My colleague doesn’t value me.”
  2. Then write down a sentence that says the opposite. My thought would be “My colleague DOES value me.”
  3. Set a timer for five minutes and challenge yourself to find as many reasons as you can why the opposite thought might be true.
  4. Then ask yourself: what would be the advantage of believing the new thought? How would your life be different if you believed this thought instead? Is it worth reminding your brain of this list of evidence consistently, in order to build that belief?

If you answer yes to that last question, then the next step is to return to this list whenever you notice yourself thinking the established thought. Over time, your brain will start to build new pathways and gradually the new thought will become more the default than the old one.

At that point, something magical happens. There’s a snowball effect. Once the new pathway tips toward the default, it starts to take on inertia of its own, which means your brain will start shaping new evidence to support it. The more established the pathway, the more inertia it has,the more evidence you will find to support it, the more established it will be and the more inertia it will have. And so on.

In effect, you turn thought inertia into your servant rather than your master. And you start to steal back your joy.

To learn more, check out my deep dive on thought inertia.

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