Abstract

Controlling our thoughts is central to mental well-being, and its failure is at the crux of a number of mental disorders. Paradoxically, behavioral evidence shows that thought suppression often fails. Despite the broad importance of understanding the mechanisms of thought control, little is known about the fate of neural representations of suppressed thoughts. Using fMRI, we investigated the brain areas involved in controlling visual thoughts and tracked suppressed thought representations using multivoxel pattern analysis. Participants were asked to either visualize a vegetable/fruit or suppress any visual thoughts about those objects. Surprisingly, the content (object identity) of successfully suppressed thoughts was still decodable in visual areas with algorithms trained on imagery. This suggests that visual representations of suppressed thoughts are still present despite reports that they are not. Thought generation was associated with the left hemisphere, and thought suppression was associated with right hemisphere engagement. Furthermore, general linear model analyses showed that subjective success in thought suppression was correlated with engagement of executive areas, whereas thought-suppression failure was associated with engagement of visual and memory-related areas. These results suggest that the content of suppressed thoughts exists hidden from awareness, seemingly without an individual's knowledge, providing a compelling reason why thought suppression is so ineffective. These data inform models of unconscious thought production and could be used to develop new treatment approaches to disorders involving maladaptive thoughts.

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