Health · Learning · Smart Thinking

Not thinking of Blue Trees

Some of the training courses that I have attended over the years (which have resulted in vaguely work-related certification) place great emphasis on “The Unconscious Mind” and what it can and can’t do. The advice is that “The Unconscious Mind” is like a child that follows clear instructions and cannot process a negative. If you repeatedly tell a young child what not to do (“Don’t go near the water”, “Don’t fall out of that tree”, “Don’t run across the road”) the chances are (so the theory goes) that they will still do it, because they (and their Unconscious Minds) cannot process the word “Don’t”. They hear “Go near the water”, “Fall out of that tree”, “Run across the road”.

I favour literal, positive speech. “Be safe” is a simpler instruction than a list of things to be avoided. We have always had two simple rules for children’s parties: “Be safe” and “Have fun”. If you’re not being safe, you can’t have fun. I appreciate that the goals that you set should aim “towards” what you want rather than “away from” what you don’t want. My hope is for a long, happy, healthy life, for me and for every member my family. That’s a good enough target for me, rather than hoping that we avoid the opposite (short, unhappy, unhealthy lives; there have been too many of them throughout human history). You could quibble and say “long”, “happy” and “healthy” are not specific enough to direct us towards the kind of lives I want us all to enjoy, but I am happy to have some flexibility in these adjectives. Compared to the vast majority of the estimated 100 billion humans that have ever been born I have already lived a long life. But if I have to put a number on it, can I live, healthy and happy, to 120 please?

My reluctance to promote, with great enthusiasm, the idea that “The Unconscious Mind cannot process a negative” is based on one of the classic examples contained in the training materials I encountered over ten years ago. We were told, “Don’t think of a blue tree”, and then, “You see, you can’t do it, can you?” My conscious mind took the first instruction literally, and disagreed with the second part: I didn’t think of a blue tree. “Blue tree” is a verbal construct, with no relevance in my life, now or historically. No images of blue trees come easily to mind. I found it easy not to think of blue trees, and it’s an effort to think, consciously, about them. It might have been different if the instruction were to avoid thinking of Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t get you out of my head”, especially if it’s accompanied by a few bars of the song. But earworms are something else, worth at least one piece per month on this Blog.

We are not all built and programmed the same way. If I find that my Unconscious Mind has been tormented for years trying not to think of blue trees, and that some dreadful psychic damage has been done, I’ll let you know, but for now, so far so good. Typing the words “blue tree” eight times in this piece has still failed to bring a clear visual image to mind. If you spend the rest of the day unable to get the idea of a blue tree out of your mind I’m sorry about that. Our brains and minds are not the same.

One thought on “Not thinking of Blue Trees

  1. As I read your piece my first visualisation of a blue tree was of a cut out tree, cut from blue card. The kind you might make at junior school in art class, with symmetrical branches and no, or very few, leaves. Probably made by folding a sheet of card in two and cutting along the fold. I also have trouble imagining a genuine tree that was blue. I can hold it in my mind as a concept but not as a picture but I’m not a very visual person. In novels I prefer dialog to descriptive passages. (I have read Lord of the Rings, but I’m not sure how I managed it and would never even consider reading it again.)


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