The Truth about White Bears

White Bear SyndromeSome days, you just cannot help but think about the white bears. The more you try not to, the more you feel compelled to think about them. That’s the thing about white bears: they never quite go away.

Worse, once you step on the white bear treadmill, there is no getting off. Failing to avoid thinking about white bears is a loss of innocence. And it’s the most contagious of diseases, completely viral in that it passes from person to person with the merest hint of contact.

White Bear Syndrome began in the late 1980s or early 1990s with a university study where students were placed in front of computers and told to write about anything they could think of as long as it wasn’t about white bears. The restriction on white bears made it impossible for the students to not think about (much less type about) them.

The news media heard about this experiment and carried a story about it. So not only were those poor students contaminated for life, anyone who read the newspaper and magazine stories about the project was equally forever doomed to always think about White Bears.

You cannot not think about White Bears, because if you try to put them out of your mind, you are thinking about not thinking about them.

The White Bear Conundrum is a metaphorical example of communication. You cannot not communicate. Refusing to contact or acknowledge someone is a tacit admission of something about your view of that person. You may be intimidated, frightened, awestruck, angry, or just totally zoned out in a state of euphoria. But the choice not to initiate contact or not to respond with someone you know when that person is available is in itself a communicative action.

Think of when two people argue, and one turns their back on the other, covering their ears. The actions indicate that the first person is trying to close out the other person. “You are no longer part of my world,” the actions say. “What you say is no longer important to me.”

Silence is a tool of communication that parents use to discipline their children. It’s a tool of communication that children use to rebel against their parents. Silence is the utmost insult because it conveys to the other party the sense that they are not important enough to be addressed. Public shunning, once widely practiced throughout America, was an extremely effective means of controlling a population. People rely upon each other to meet all sorts of needs. If we are being isolated and shunned by the community, we have been cut off from the network that enables us to survive.

White Bears emplify the other person. Once you acknowledge the other person, you can never not acknowledge that person again. You may go out of your way not to speak to, look at, or listen to someone — but such extreme avoidance is itself an acknowledgement of the other person. That person becomes a black hole, warping space and time to such an extent that you move away from that location.

We each have an event horizon around us, which can be thought of as a the point of contact between us and other people. Your event horizon includes a visible range (you can identify people you know well at a distance of several hundred feet by the way they dress, walk, run, or gesture). You event horizon includes an audible range, and your event horizon includes an olfactory range. But we also have other ranges. Letters delivered by mail, electronic messages, telephone calls, and advertising media comprise a much vaguer but very broad event horizon. Some restraint orders specifically forbid people from appearing in public in ways that may impact the other people seeking the orders.

And one cannot get a restraint order against a White Bear. A White Bear is always near or far, but is never gone. Unless you can erase your memories completely, the bears will always be with you.

So if you think about White Bears, try to think about the more pleasant ones. A fun memory brightens your day, and as long as you embrace the light you won’t need to fear the dark.