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Stream Capture: Taking Control of Thought Triggers with Visualization Techniques

by Josh Cohen on May 22, 2011

My post yesterday was about how I think about mnemonic images. The purpose of that post was to lead into this one which goes more into my thoughts on using mnemonic visualization techniques to modify thought habits.

I previously wrote about my technique on how I change a number’s image and the psychological effect of memory techniques, and how I assign temporary names to unknown objects and ideas in order to remember them. This post expands on that idea with illustrations.

Visualization and “Brain Surgery”

Visualization helps with changing ways of thinking and can even improve physical performance. Memory techniques are a type of intensive visualization training, so it seems that the techniques could be applied to many aspects of personal development with minor modifications.

I don’t have any background in psychology, but someday I will find out the correct names for these things and replace my own temporary names.

Because this kind of mental training changes the physical structure of the brain, I only half-jokingly refer to this as a type of self-performed brain surgery. This idea evolved from my technique to change a number’s mnemonic image, which was reinforced by ideas I read about in the book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force where the author writes about thoughts being successfully used to physically modify the brain.

Stream Capture in Geology

Continuing with the geology comparisons, I think of this process as being similar to geological stream capture. Stream capture happens when headward erosion of a stream meets another stream. Water flows downhill, so the deeper stream captures the flow of the water:

Geology: stream capture

Stream capture in geomorphology

Stream Capture and Thought Triggers

In yesterday’s blog post I mentioned “thought triggers”. I think of a thought trigger as any external event that triggers a thought or series of thoughts. The trigger could be the Ace of Spades, the number 522, an uncomfortable interpersonal interaction, or a song on the radio.

I’ve noticed that many recurring bad thoughts are triggered by something. If I start feeling bad, I can often trace my thoughts backwards and discover a trigger that sent my thoughts down the unpleasant stream:

Thought trigger

Thought trigger: undesired thought

How to Hack the System

There are a couple of ways I can see to hack the system:

  1. Artificially change the path (“stream capture”, see below)
  2. Artificially manipulate triggers
    • Create artificial triggers and artificial paths
    • Modify existing triggers

In this case, the stream of thought can be modified by laying down a new association with the thought trigger. At first the new stream isn’t strong, and it requires conscious thought:

Laying down a new stream

Laying down a new stream

After a while, the “depth” of the associations are equal and you have a conscious choice which one to follow:

Capturing the stream

Capturing the stream

With a little more visualization, the new stream “captures” the stream of undesirable thought and the trigger automatically sends thoughts down the new path in the brain:

Stream capture

The deeper stream captures the flow

Other Variations

I’ve also tried creating artificial triggers. One experiment was to choose the most relaxing piece of music I could find and then attach a pleasant memory journey through the redwood trees to it.

Photo of Redwood Trees, Muir Woods, California

A memory journey through the Redwoods

I chose a mental journey, because I find that walking through memory palaces is highly relaxing–like counting sheep–and that music has a strong association with location. I often find my thoughts being transported to the location that I was when the music had an effect on me.

In order to attach the artificial “stream” to the artificial “trigger” I initially only played the piece of music during visualization and at no other time.


My personal experience is that the “stream capture” technique works and is highly effective. I’ve eliminated some habitual negative thoughts in this way. The Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force book describes using similar techniques to overcome even serious obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

Has anyone else tries something similar? If anyone experiments with it, please let me know how it has worked for you.

Illustration of geological stream capture © Shimoxx under Creative Commons license.

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