Non-supernatural explanation for bad thoughts

My sisters believe that demons and the devil himself put “sinful” thoughts into their minds. Sometimes I wonder where bad thoughts of my own come from. Do people have any psychological explanations…? The more scientific-sounding the better.

It would depend on what exactly is a “sinful” thought. Thinking about sex? Yeah, we’re animals, it’s in our nature to want to reproduce, no surprise there. Thinking about violently hurting someone? Hey, lots of people have fantasies that they wouldn’t actually want to come true. Humans are natural storytellers, it’s one main thing that separates us from other mammals (as far as we can tell), so we use the concept of hypothetical fiction to vent frustration or make sense of our emotions. I don’t know what else is qualifies as “sinful” but blaming it on demons probably isn’t helpful.


“Hey, lots of people have fantasies that they wouldn’t actually want to come true”

It seems a bit strange to me that people would get strong fantasies about things they don’t want to become true… and some people might even get thoughts about sexually abusing kids or something which I don’t think is seen by psychologists as being natural (unlike homosexuality which is now seen as healthy)… well maybe those fantasies are somewhat natural but acting on them would be very unhealthy.

As long as you describe these bad thoughts as sinful and demonically inspired, that should be OK. Not psychotic, though, that’s a no-no.

But you should check out that thread – I’ve got the Imp of the Perverse whispering in my ear all the freakin time, and seeing other people’s experiences was a relief.

My sisters are the Christians though… I don’t currently believe in a supernatural realm. I was wondering what non-supernatural processes I could blame it on…

Well there is medication for that in many cases though - and I wonder where those psychotic thoughts come from? Just some kind of chemical imbalance?

The human brain is just a whole pile of kludges that happened to be more successful than the previous pile of kludges. It’s hardly surprising that some “obsolete” thoughts might still be generated every now and again.

It certainly makes more sense than claiming that we are incapable of having these thoughts, and explaining the disconnect by inventing invisible, intangible beings that for some reason have nothing but this sort of thought and can communicate with us without being detected.

The mind isn’t as unified as it seems. Parts of you are going to want to do bad things, because they don’t happen to be part of the subsection of the mind that handles morality.

To use an example not involving morality on your part; suppose I present you with a plate of your favorite food, then sprinkle poison on it in front of you. You’ll still feel hungry, you’ll still have an urge to eat the food because the portion of your brain saying 'Hungry! Eat now!" is only a small subsection that doesn’t include your conscious awareness that the food is poisoned. But you won’t eat the food, because your whole mind does include that conscious awareness.

By the same token, if you dislike Bob, there’s a small segment of your mind that is the “I hate Bob, let’s get him!” segment. If it inspires nasty, ethical urges or fantasies, that’s because it is only a tiny subroutine, while your ethical system is somewhere else.

Or to put it yet another way, sometimes you get urges that are beneath you because you are composed of components that are lesser entities than you are. You as a whole are a fully capable human being; but when you look at the pieces of which you are composed, those pieces will be less than human. They have to be, since they are pieces of a human and not the whole.

This, heartily!

Maybe it has something to do with our awareness of our surroundings and our interpretations of stuff. How our mind functions with the experience of living. Maybe if I think ‘I could set the dog on fire’ that’s just my brain randomly telling me it’s a possibility, not that I would, because I rather love the dog and am not, you know, psychotic.

According to Steven Pinker, thoughts have their own language (we don’t think in language - we interpret our thoughts into language). So they’re happening at a very basic level. I don’t even think you need to think of yourself as responsible for your own thoughts.

I don’t think, to give a really specific example, someone who thinks about sex with kids is a bad person unless he actually does it. (In fact, I saw a really touching and sad doco about men who acknowledged they had paedophiliac urges and were seeking help so they WOULDN’T ever harm a kid, because they really, really didn’t want to. They seemed heroic!) You harm no one in your own head. The actions are what matters…you can think what you like. To prove this, I am now thinking very hard about decapitating my brother. And I’m still not a bad person. I think.

I’m just thinking aloud (hawr hawr) though, no need to put any stock in any of this. :stuck_out_tongue:

I think everyone gets intrusive counterproductive thoughts every now and again. Who hasn’t said, on the edge of a cliff, “I could throw myself off”. I think the majority of people I know have experienced this particular one. And there are degrees of everything.

Also, taboo thoughts are one of the possible symptoms of OCD.

I think you were whooshed. The thread linked to was shut down even though the people in it are not psychotic. It might be helpful for you to review the thread and note that a lot of people have weird thoughts, and that this is perfectly normal.

Psychosis is something different entirely, and involves recurring irrational thoughts that you believe to be literally true, as well as auditory and visual hallucinations. For example, my uncle, who is schizophrenic, once reported to me that someone had broken into his house and laced his Bangles cassette with LSD. He believes people are poisoning his cigarettes with, among other things, arsenic, cheesecake, and dead bodies. When he becomes violent (and he does), it’s because he believes that the people forcing him to take his medication are part of a conspiracy meant to harm him. In his mind, it’s self-defense. That’s psychosis.

Thoughts of lust, violence, and meanness, on the other hand, are a nearly universal experience. The problem is when they are acted upon (as with violent offenders) or, in the case of people with anxiety disorders, they are obsessed over and viewed as evidence that the thinker is a bad person. In both cases, you’ve probably got some kind of mental health issue going on, but the thoughts in and of themselves are not anything to worry about.

I have had violent thoughts, thoughts about acting inappropriately in public, thoughts about jumping off bridges, and even racist thoughts, having grown up in a very racist environment. As a person who prides herself on kindness to others, some of these thoughts really upset me and made me worry I was some kind of hypocrite or bad person. I would get really self-downing and anxious about it until I finally confessed them to a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and she didn’t bat an eye. ‘‘Oh, people think that stuff all the time,’’ she said, ‘‘It doesn’t mean you’re a secretly awful person. People with anxiety tend to fixate on those thoughts and worry about them and self-judge. So next time something like that comes up, try thinking, ‘huh, that’s weird,’ and move on.’’

That’s when I realized… I am not violent, impulsive, inappropriate, or racist. None of my fears of losing control have ever materialized. Having a thought, or a fear of something, does not mean it’s going to happen Now when I have those thoughts, I sort of laugh at the absurdity. Of course, now that I don’t try to repress them, I don’t have them nearly as often as I used to.

As for WHY they happen… well, they happen because random thoughts happen in general. The brain is a very complex organ with a lot of uncommitted cortex and there’s all kinds of stuff going on in there at any one given time. We always are having random thoughts, from ‘‘What’s for dinner?’’ to ‘‘I wonder what it would be like to fly’’ to ‘‘Hey, this shirt would look better if it was green.’’ ‘‘Bad thoughts’’ – whether sexual, violent, or just mean-spirited, aren’t any different than these other thoughts. The problem is that we often think they are.

I would suggest that your sister’s fixation on those thoughts as ‘‘sinful’’ is somewhat pathological in itself. It would be unnatural for her NOT to have thoughts of lust or wanting to deck someone who pissed her off. As I mentioned above, repressing thoughts is a sure-fire way to have them come up repeatedly and cause the person trying to repress them great distress. It would not surprise me at all if people worried about ‘‘sin’’ had 1,000 more sinful thoughts than the average person just by nature of their obsession with those thoughts.

Here is my opinion, FWIW. The human brain is a coalition of essentially autonomous parts and consciousness is where they contend. Some of the parts censor others, but sometimes the other thoughts do seep through and we are aware of them. It is hard to know what the sisters mean by “sinful thoughts”. If they concern sex, then the sinfulness is entirely in their own minds, since I don’t consider my sex longings to be at all sinful. But I do sometimes have what I would recognize as sinful thoughts, but I know I am not going to act on them. For example, there was a sadist masquerading as a gym teacher in HS (from which I graduated nearly 56 years ago) that I still imagine hanging on the edge of a cliff by his fingers and I come along with a hammer…

Refer your sisters to this site. Explain to them that it will help prevent those thoughts from entering their minds. As an alternative, they should quit attending church; it’ll have the same effect.

When you indulge thoughts and allow them to repeat, you are reinforcing the brain connections that allow those thoughts to continue and flourish. You’re feeding your ‘personal demons’ as it were. The solution is not to fight them, as that only creates conflicting yet strangely reinforcing mental patterns. The solution is to, every time you find yourself thinking of them, simply release the thoughts and move on.

It seems that both you and your sisters are looking for an outside source to blame-have you ever considered taking responsibility for your own thoughts?

Yay, I have science!

According to Overcoming Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Behavioral and Cognitive Protocol for the Treatment of OCD by Gail Steketee, Ph.D.:

All bolding mine.

Get it? That’s 85-95% of a non-clinical population, meaning most random people off the street have these kinds of thoughts on a regular basis, and report that they don’t feel disturbed by them.

The distinction between those with anxiety and regular folks is not the thoughts themselves, but how the thoughts are judged. Non-disordered people think, ‘‘meh’’ while anxiety-prone people think ‘‘OMG what’s wrong with me I’m a monster!!! I must never have that thought again!’’

Hmm, I get most of those impulses (though not obsessively).

I think the ability to have creative thoughts and ideas requires thoughts of a wide variety would be popping into one’s head. Also, it’s a self-feeding system, and if you think some kind of thought is improper that can make the thought recur. It’s like that story about a guy who got a job not thinking about chickens. Every time he didn’t think about a chicken, he’d get $5, and every time he didn’t think about a brown chicken it would be $7 instead. He couldn’t do it.

OCD is more than that, though. You often can’t let go of the thoughts, and the thoughts themselves can cause you distress even when you know they aren’t real. It’s like your mind wants to hold on to thoughts that cause you distress.

Sort of a combo of the 2 (natural/supernatural), it is related to people they know or have known, aspects of their personality that rubs off on them, and echos of the past, such as in childhood, long forgotten but still in the sub-consciousness. Now this directly relates to spirits/souls/demons but is just the physical manifestation of them.

Explain the concepts of ego, superego, and id to your sisters. Tell them that though they think their big friend in the sky wants them to walk around aglow with a holy light and invisible angel wings and haloes, in the real world thoughts and feelings roil through the brain of everyone sentient and alive. Another big enemy with a pitchfork is not responsible for “sinful” thoughts. Virtue and sin are man-made attempts at controlling the thought process, IMO…It’s rather sad about your sisters, they are no more advanced than peasants in the dark ages or Africans killing so-called witches this very year of 2010.

Well, that sounds like hell.