As an average individual living a typical day, you ‘re most likely to have about 6,200 thoughts in a single day. This is according to new research by psychologists at Queen’s University in Canada who have invented a way to separate “thought worms,” specific patterns of thought that concentrate on the same idea throughout consecutive moments.
“What we call thought worms are adjacent points in a simplified representation of activity patterns in the brain. The brain occupies a different point in this ‘state space’ at every moment. When a person moves onto a new thought, they create a new thought worm that we can detect with our methods,” Dr Jordan Poppenk, study author and Assistant Professor at Queen’s Department of Psychology, said in a statement.
Thoughts are very vague feelings that flow and wander between various ideas against the background of mental “white noise,” so quantifying them has long been a struggle for researchers. Reported in Nature Communications, Dr. Poppenk, and Julie Tseng, a master’s student developed a way to classify unique “thought worms” through fMRI brain imaging and the use of new brain pattern models.
This allowed them to identify certain patterns of the brain, and to note when a change occurred between different thoughts.“We also noticed that thought worms emerge right as new events do when people are watching movies. Drilling into this helped us validate the idea that the appearance of a new thought worm corresponds to a thought transition,” Poppenk said.
Based on their initial study, they found that the average person has around 6,200 so-called thought worms over the course of a single day.
“We had our breakthrough by giving up on trying to understand what a person is thinking about, and instead focusing on when they have moved on,” Poppenk explained. “Our methods help us detect when a person is thinking something new, without regard to what the new thought is. You could say that we’ve skipped over vocabulary in an effort to understand the punctuation of the language of the mind.”
That being said, the technique also needs some fine-tuning. One of the key drawbacks of the study is that it requires researchers to have a template for every thought they want to examine, which essentially means that they must have a clear understanding of what the individual is thinking about in order to recognize the number of changes between thoughts.
Despite these weak points, new research still opens up some potential doors for investigation. It would be fascinating, for example, to know how the flow of people’s thoughts shifts under various situations, such as under the influence of drugs or stress.
“For example, how does mentation rate – the rate at which thought transitions occur – relate to a person’s ability to pay attention for a long period? Also, can measures of thought dynamics serve a clinical function? For example, our methods could possibly support early detection of disordered thought in schizophrenia, or rapid thought in ADHD or mania,” Poppenk said. “We think the methods offer a lot of potential; we hope to make heavy use of them in our upcoming work.”