We all have dark impulses. None of us wants them. Yet attempts to suppress them can turn them into agents of harm. Be forewarned: Forces at work in our culture's value system may be making us more vulnerable to forbidden thoughts--and less able to cope with them.
For as long as humankind has celebrated the creative powers of the mind, we've been forced to confront the darker side of the imagination: thoughts so mortifying, so frightening, so contrary to social custom and our own principles that we recoil in disgust or fear. In 1852, nearly three decades before the rounding of modern psychology, author Herman Melville offered one of the more poignant observations on the life of the mind. "One trembles to think," he wrote, "of that mysterious thing in the soul, which...in spite of the individual's own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts."
Debated for centuries as a moral or philosophical question, the dilemma of forbidden thoughts has since become a compelling psychological subject, and research is yielding some intriguing, if not altogether reassuring, data. Forbidden thoughts--thoughts we feel we shouldn't have because they violate unwritten, yet ingrained, cultural codes--are universal, although the specific content varies across cultures, populations, and historical periods. Unwanted sexual fantasies, for example, typically involve behaviors our culture tells us are inappropriate, such as adultery, homosexuality, incest, and rape. Forbidden thoughts we might have about other people often involve stereotypes, which society frowns upon. Forbidden thoughts have an intuitive quality to them: It's the things we're not supposed to think about that often seem most alluring.