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Thoughts Are Made to Be Thrown Out

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When I was a kid we had an aquarium with a betta in it, also known as a Siamese fighting fish. We were told that male betta fish try to kill each other on sight, so you are definitely not supposed to hold a mirror up to the side of the tank to make it look like it has a competitor.

Of course we had to try it once, and it did indeed try to fight its mirror-bound intruder, so my dad made us stop before it hurt itself. When we took the mirror away, it resumed its normal routine of lazily swimming around, as though its foe had never been there at all. It didn’t seem to remember the other fish or worry about it.

I assume it moved on so quickly because fish do not have the ability, as we do, to entertain imaginary scenarios in their heads. They respond to what they’re experiencing — a hostile fish staring at them, an attractive fish flirting with them — but they don’t swim around reminiscing about past scuffles and rehearsing potential future ones. As a salmon flings itself upstream, it does not suffer recurring mental images of being torn apart by a bear or filleted on a rock. It just swims and eats as instincts dictate, and maybe it will make it and maybe not, but it doesn’t agonize over its range of possible fates.

We humans are so used to fretting over predicted and remembered scenarios that we forget that our entire lives still occur in the present, including all of that fretting about hypotheticals. We can barely imagine what it’s like for most animals, who only experience what’s actually happening. We can’t imagine it because that means we’d be imagining what it would be like to never have developed imagination.

Not internally tormented

And think about how crazy a development that was: at some point, one of earth’s creatures began to experience a new kind of sense perception. It began to experience ghostly images and sensations representing events that happened to it in the past, and could happen again later, and these sensations inform the creature’s actions in the present, perhaps even to defy its instincts!

A creature that has these surreal visions might be inclined to avoid same bushes where it once got snapped at by a snake, or to seek a certain field marked by a Y-shaped tree, where it once found too many seeds to carry. These mysterious, wispy sensations (which we know now as thoughts) were so useful in bolstering survivability that their descendants still live today, and are in fact us.

Unfortunately, there’s a huge downside to having this ability, which is that these hypothetical mind-events cause us a lot of pain. We relive years-old humiliations, read the wrong things into people and situations, ache for pleasures we don’t have access to, and fret over catastrophes that never happen. Thought alone can make a perfectly healthy creature completely miserable.

Thoughts aid survival by letting us test out propositions without having to act them out and trigger their full consequences. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead is credited as saying, “The reason we have thoughts is so that our ideas can die instead of ourselves.” To think about something is to summon up visions of multiple paths into the future, and assess which paths might end well and which might not. By interrogating a few prospective future paths, you can throw out the ideas that look like they’ll end in your doom (pick berries by the snake-hole; go up to that other guy and take his furs) and act out the ones that hedge against those dangers (make the longer trek to a snakeless food source; refrain from snatching the furs and angering someone bigger than you). In this way, thinking helps us circumvent much of the natural carnage of real-life trial and error — your unwise ideas can die instead of you.

No ideas. Might die. Not worried.

In other words, thinking can greatly reduce the cost of trial and error, because most of our trials can be mental instead of physical.

However, that means using this ability is hard on our psyches. Thinking of your doom triggers much of the same emotional suffering as real-life pains and losses, it’s just that your bones and tissues remain safe. A fish might experience the sensation of being mauled by a predator once in its life. For us, it could be a thousand times — the specter of doom is much more prevalent in our experience.

Recognizing thought for what it is — a mild hallucination that offers a physically safer form of trial and error — can spare us a lot of that kind of suffering. If thoughts are meant to die instead of ourselves, it’s vital that we do let them die. We need to make sure we dispose of thoughts after they’ve made their appeal, because they’ll stick around as long as you let them. In my experience, a train of thought will insist on its own necessity as long as you humor it, just as even the lowest-quality job applicants will remain in sell-themselves mode until they’re politely shown how to leave the premises.

When I wrote about the corner glimpsing exercise a few months ago, my intention was to show people something an easily overlooked fact about thoughts: they can be thrown out. You can simply drop them mid-spiel:

Throwing out thoughts is something to practice, using a technique like Corner Glimpsing or just by uttering an inner “No thanks” and doing something with the body instead. You just drop it and move, putting your attention into anything physical and real.

This “drop-and-move-on” move feels dangerous at first. This is because the mind knows you’re abandoning mental trial-and-error for the physical kind again, and the mind’s entire purpose is to keep the body from messing itself up in the real world. The mind forgets, though, that ultimately the body is the part of you that has to get on with things and live in that real world, and nothing good can happen until it starts doing that again.


Photos by Worochat Sodsri, Brandon, and Simon Berger

Tom February 15, 2023 at 7:45 pm

Man, if it were only so easy! Not to trivialize your point, but I think you might be generalizing much of the animal kingdom if you assume they don’t experience some of what we consider the “human plight”. Big fan, by the way. Just a thought.

miseleigh February 16, 2023 at 7:29 am

Yes, this. Dogs and cats get separation anxiety; ravens and crows learn and remember how to use different tools. We don’t know if any animals experience the phenomenon generally called ‘conscious’ thought, but then, some humans don’t have an inner monologue either.

Dogs and cats who have been abused certainly seem to relive a version of those experiences when reminded of them by similar circumstances; even mice anticipate painful stimuli and change their behavior based on previous experiences. The lines between behavioral training, memory, thought, and imagination are far from clear.

Anyway. David, I think the conclusions here are great – this is the essence of CBT, learning how to recognize maladaptive thought patterns and redirect them towards something more helpful. It can be a very useful tool for many people. But I think the distinction you’ve drawn here between animals and humans is inaccurate, and a distraction from your point rather than supportive.

David Cain February 16, 2023 at 9:06 am

“Dogs and cats who have been abused certainly seem to relive a version of those experiences when reminded of them by similar circumstances; even mice anticipate painful stimuli and change their behavior based on previous experiences. The lines between behavioral training, memory, thought, and imagination are far from clear.”

Animals definitely learn from painful experiences — that’s not the distinction I’m making. Humans are capable of generating alternate versions of reality in their minds, which I believe generate a unique kind of suffering. The dog that shies away from peoples after being abused has learned to associate certain situations with “danger,” but it is not contemplating various mental images of hypothetical scenarios, and choosing between them.

David Cain February 16, 2023 at 8:58 am

I don’t think I said that. What I believe they don’t experience is abstract thought. A dog can miss its owner, but I don’t think that’s the same as human rumination, where we are replaying scenarios in our heads, iterating thought in different versions in an attempt to resolve our suffering.

Al Mazzoni February 16, 2023 at 4:29 am

excellent story and suggestion.

Al Mazzoni February 16, 2023 at 4:29 am

excellent thought. thanks

Valerio February 16, 2023 at 4:47 am

This is why meditation teachers put so much stress on the importance of meditation practices; why mindfulness of both body and phenomena is the first step to awakening. The ability to see thoughts as thoughts comes from strengthening our “mindfulness muscle” rather than mere rationalization.

David Cain February 16, 2023 at 9:12 am

Exactly. Humans usually have a general understanding that thoughts aren’t real, but we really struggle with the distinction when it comes down to it. Mindfulness practice trains you to recognize thought as thought (i.e. as wispy flashes of images and auditory experience), and not as a real glimpse of the thought’s subject matter.

Joe February 16, 2023 at 5:12 am

This touches on something I’ve found productive to do: when an intrusive thought pops up or an urge to indulge in an addiction craving I repeat to myself the bumper sticker wisdom of NOT TODAY, SATAN. I know it sounds over the top silly but, oddly enough, it seems to slam the door on such negative mental phenomena and allows me to move on.

Great post as always!

J$ February 16, 2023 at 6:27 am

Totally stealing this!

David Cain February 16, 2023 at 9:15 am

The mythical archetype of the devil is a super interesting one to me. It’s so clearly a reference to the unique human capability (and burden) to recognize the choice between instinctual action and moral action when they diverge, as they often do.

Although I’ve never viewed the devil/Satan/Mara from a religious perspective, I do think it is a very useful concept, because we all understand that there is some force trying to lead us astray, which we have to steel ourselves against.

Fiona February 16, 2023 at 9:34 am

On the flip side, I say “In Jesus’ name, go away” to a particularly intrusive thought. I’m not religious, but somehow I picked this up in childhood and it works on occasion. I’m certainly not the master of thoughts, and often forget I have any such strategies. this post serves as a reminder that I can exercise the muscle of walking away.

Omer February 16, 2023 at 5:13 am


While I’m happy to stand behind your conclusion, I’m also amuses by the way your way there disagrees with Peter Watts’ theories. One of Watts’ main themes, e.g. in Blindsight, is that consciousness is a by product, occurring because of the size of the neutral network. Not a useful end by itself.

But, yeah, I stand by corner glancing and letting thoughts go.

David Cain February 16, 2023 at 9:24 am

Looking at the wikipedia page for Blindsight it looks like something I’d like.

I have no idea whether consciousness is necessary, or just along for the ride, but there’s no disputing that we have it. In fact that’s the one truth that Descartes famously concluded we cannot doubt.

Mary Sudie February 16, 2023 at 7:18 am

Loved the article and especially the fish tank story! Will work on corner glancing, thanks!

Bruno February 16, 2023 at 7:34 am

“No, thanks”. I think the idea of this article is a nice complement of “let it come, let it be, let it go” idea, it was an article that since I read it did stick with me until today.

David Cain February 16, 2023 at 9:27 am

It is for sure related. Thoughts are one type of phenomena we experience, but they generate *really* strong attachment in humans, I suppose because the stakes can be so high. But strong attachment means a lot of suffering, unless we can learn to let them go.

Heather February 16, 2023 at 7:39 am

David, you seem to have a sixth sense…I always get exactly what I need when I read your work.
Still struggling, but your framing always gives me a different, amusing way to look at things.
(Note: Spell check changed “amusing” to “amazing.” That, too.)

Sharon Hanna February 16, 2023 at 9:50 am

Really liked this one, David. Thank you. Always smile at the captions under the photos….the lizard one was great today. Do you know of Kelly Boys? Yoga nidra stuff….

Jimbo Guanzon February 16, 2023 at 10:20 am

Great post David! I’m glad I opened this newsletter and read the blog post on the site. I can choose to drop the negative thoughts and move on. The Betta is only in my mind, i don’t have to overthink and ruminate on something remembered and re-imagined…


Tara February 16, 2023 at 11:48 am

I wish I could turn off the static in my brain. I try to relax and just be in the present moment, but thoughts of things I need to do, worries about the future, decisions I feel like I have to make are so exhausting because they pop up constantly. I end up chanting mantras sometimes just to drown out the noise, but I would prefer for that voice in my head to just shut up. Bikshu Analayo says to just tell yourself, This is not needed right now, I tell myself I can think about X later, but nothing works reliably.

On top of being intrusive and exhausting, my thoughts are often completely useless for protecting me from bad decisions. I’m a bad predictor of what will actually make me happy or improve my life. I have barely come through a disastrous life decision recently that makes me feel like I am completely incompetent at figuring out what to do with my life or even just managing my affairs reasonably well. It’s quite discouraging.

David Cain February 16, 2023 at 2:10 pm

You can’t get the voice in the head to shut up. It will always generate thoughts. You can drastically reduce the stickiness of those thoughts though (i.e. how much they take over your attention). The corner-glimpsing technique is enough to “break contact” from a train of thought, but if you want to make thoughts less sticky on an ongoing basis, I don’t know any way other than serious meditation.

Since you mentioned Bikkhu Analayo, I assume you do meditate… What is your practice like?

Robyn Quaintance February 16, 2023 at 2:15 pm

The only thing that works in getting rid of thoughts is to forgive them. To hand them up. Anything else, like just forgetting them or changing your mind actually just stuffs them down. But when they come around again, just forgive them then. And one might have to forgive them more than once or twice…. it is all part of the process.

Anyone that wants more of this type of practise should check out, “A Course in Miracles”…. the miracle being when you have a shift in consciousness.

Alice February 16, 2023 at 6:18 pm

How about treating the brain as an individual who keeps bringing up subjects because it wants to be heard. When you write down the intrusive thoughts it can make the brain feel heard and it can stop haranguing you. I’ve been collecting information for years on how the subconscious mind actually seems to work (look up rubber duck debugging for an interesting example). I know I sound like a crank but writing down concerns is a common exercise (eg “morning pages”).

Sneza February 17, 2023 at 3:06 am

Great article David! I feel like I just needed to read this. I am constantly mentally reliving the past over and over again, wishing I have a time machine and can get a chance to make the “better” choices. All of these thoughts keep me away from present moment. I wish I can come to peace with my past.

Calen February 18, 2023 at 1:50 am


Thank you for posting this. I was thinking of writing something similar on Medium. I’ve been thinking about it for a long while, actually – especially with regards to angry rumination.

I remember, back when I was in the deepest phases of my depression, that i could easily spend hours out of any given day ruminating furiously. As part of working my way out of that process I spent time asking myself why, exactly, I was ruminating–especially when I realized that most of my angry ruminative fantasies had NOTHING to do with the wrongs that people had done to me, but rather were imaginings about FUTURE wrongs that they might do to me.

I concluded after a long time that I was building up an intense hatred for people who had caused me some kind of wrong based on nothing that they had actually done. Slowly I came around to the conclusion that rumination was about preparation for a future conflict.

More than that, though, it was also about keeping the anger alive. I think rumination serves a stoking function. It’s not just about thinking the conflict through to be prepared for it; rather, it seemed to me in retrospect that I wanted to keep the anger with me because I believed that the anger itself was valuable.

I tend to be a kind person. If I forget my anger I forgive easily and along with that comes a tendency to drop my guard and make myself vulnerable to being taken advantage of. So, I think that stoking my own anger was a way of keeping up a boundary that I was terrified would drop if I forgave the people who wronged me.

At any rate, thank you very much for sharing this. I look forward to reading your next article, too. You always seem to speak to me right where I am.

David Cain February 19, 2023 at 8:24 pm

I think for me rumination is a kind of pacifier. It helps me fixate on something and so I don’t have to contend with the unevenness/uncertainty of the present moment. It’s hard to just let the moment be the moment — much easier to cling to something.

Riccardo February 18, 2023 at 5:29 am

Hello David,
My name’s Riccardo, writing from Italy. I’ve been reading you on an irregular basis for some years but this is my first time writing. Thanks a lot for all your relfections, they are always very helpful.
Reading this post let me get in touch with an ‘issue’ that is always coming back to me and for which I cannot find any definitive solution. I’ll try to express it as clear as I can. The point is that thinking is a bit always the opposite of living in the moment. But there is some thinking/pondering/planning that is necessary in order to live in the world. So where is the border between the necessary thinking and the useless, detrimental rumination? Which kind of has to do also with the line between contemplating what is and ‘creating’ or modifying reality. Between a kind of passiveness and activity. Maybe I’m putting things this way because I assume thinking is the starting point of changing/creating/acting but maybe this assumption is false…
So I don’t know, I’m a bit confused about all this and maybe put things together that don’t really belong together, what is your opinion?
Thanks a lot!

David Cain February 19, 2023 at 8:28 pm

We do have to think about things in the abstract in order to plan and analyze, so it’s good that we can do it.

The distinction between planning and ruminating is whether it is producing anything of value or not. If you are actually trying to make a decision or accomplish something, the thinking is necessary. Much of the time our thinking is not leading towards a decision or action though, it’s just a machine left in the “on” position. The word rumination refers to what cows do, which is chewing the same glob of grass over and over. You can always ask yourself if your current line of thinking is actually leading you to a decision or action. If not, it’s rumination.

RJA February 19, 2023 at 4:34 am

One upside of being able to mentally take yourself out of situations is that we can be in the midst of painful situations and think about something else or knowing that it will end. Animals can’t do that, they are fully captured by whatever physical sensation they have at the moment.

David Cain February 19, 2023 at 8:30 pm

I think we do that a lot — think to dull ourselves to the present. I remember one time I went for a walk and kept trying to stay mindful the whole time, rather than daydream. What I noticed is that every time I went back to noticing the present, I felt uncomfortable and jumped back into thinking. It was only after a few cycles of this that I realized it was because I had a stomach ache, and it was a relief to be thinking of something instead of noticing how I felt.

Mark February 23, 2023 at 3:48 am

I like the idea that we can use our thoughts to investigate different paths, I feel like this is optionality in motion, we can come up with lots of ideas, play them out in our minds and then choose that which is most interesting, exciting or worthwhile to us.

The key though has to be to suspend those thoughts while doing as much as possible, keeping the thinking time seperate from doing, else you will just end up with endless thoughts and not be able to act out those ideas, something i struggle with, because those ideas just keep me in a thinking loop.

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