Stream Capture: Taking Control of Thought Triggers with Visualization Techniques

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 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

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

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

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

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

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](




Frank 19 Sep 2021

Have youe ver looked into Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)? NLP is the study of our subjective psychological experience. It deals with things like "thought triggers" and "stream capture" (though it uses other terms). You might like it.


Josh 19 Sep 2021

Thanks, I will check it out. Are there any books you recommend?


Donalp 19 Sep 2021

Hi Josh,

I also started thinking of NLP when reading your post and was surprised you hadn't studied it - there are lots of parallels between your ideas and NLP. I'd recommend a book called 'Frogs into Princes', which is a transcript of one of the early workshops given by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the founders of NLP. Apparently most early work by either author is worthy of consideration. There's a process called 'Reframing' which basically works as follows:

  1. Identify a pattern (e.g. trigger-negative thought) to be changed.
  2. Establish communication with the part of you responsible for this pattern
  3. Distinguish between the behaviour (e.g. negative thought) and the intention of the part that is responsible for the behaviour (e.g. you're having a negative thought, because part of your subconscious wants to protect you from something, based on past experience).
  4. Create new alternative behaviours to satisfy the intention (the same as your description of giving yourself new choices).
  5. Ask your subconsicous self to take responsibility for serving you the choices of alternative behaviours next time that trigger occurs.
  6. 'Ecological check ' - make sure your subconscious is generally happy to try a new behaviour.

I also found your 'soundtrack' idea very interesting. I tend to overlook auditory hooks when experimenting with mnemonics. I have just started using google sketchup to work on loci/palaces. Having read your post, I'm going to try exporting an animation of each palace and then adding a soundtrack to the animation, in the hope that this will encourage positive associations and also give my brain more opportunities to link everything in. Thanks for the ideas!

Josh Cohen

Josh Cohen 19 Sep 2021

Thanks... I'll see if I can find Frogs into Princes. It sounds interesting...

Steven Kidd

Steven Kidd 19 Sep 2021

I think you would find that this technique is in line with the ancient Thervadan Buddhist "four noble truths" 1. this is stress, 2. this is the cause of stress, 3. this is the end of stress, 4. this is the path of practice leading to the end of stress

The Method of Loci and Depression — 19 Sep 2021

[...] that I would only listen to when visualizing the journey, similar to the experiment I described here. That piece of music could then be set as an alarm sound on a smartphone which would trigger a [...]


Shahzabad 19 Sep 2021

Impressive, i never thought life can this simple. By controlling our thought, we improve our life tremendously. Thank you so much for willing to share this valuable knowledge. Note that you change my life for good.

Thanks again, bro!

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