Struggling to control one’s mind can change how the world appears. In prior studies testing the compensatory control theory, reduced control over the external environment motivated the search for perceptual patterns and other forms of structured knowledge, even in remote domains. Going further, the current studies test whether difficulty controlling thoughts similarly predicts structure seeking. As hypothesized, thought-control difficulty positively predicted perceptions of causal connections between remote events (Study 1a) and nonexistent objects in visual noise (Study 1b). This effect was mediated by aversive arousal (Study 2) and caused specifically by thought-control difficulty as distinct from general difficulty (Study 3). Study 4 replicated the effect with a sample of meditators learning to control their thoughts, showing that thought-control difficulty was a powerful predictor of structure seeking. These findings reveal a novel form of motivated perception.