As an average person living a typical day, you most likely have around 6,200 thoughts in a single day. That’s according to new research by psychologists from Queen's University in Canada who devised a way to isolate “thought worms,” specific patterns of thoughts that focus 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 loose things that weave and wander between different ideas against a background of mental "white noise,” so quantifying them has long been a challenge for psychologists. Reported in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Poppenk and master’s student Julie Tseng created a means to identify specific “thought worms” through fMRI brain imaging and the use of new templates of brain patterns. This allowed them to observe certain brain patterns and note when a transition between different thoughts occurred.
“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 work, they estimated that the average person has about 6,200 so-called thought worms, over the course of any given 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.”
The technique still requires some fine-tuning, however. One of the main limitations of the research is that it requires the researchers to have a template for every idea they want to observe, effectively meaning they must have a clear idea about what the person is thinking about in order to identify the number of transitions between thoughts.
With those limitations in mind, the new research still opens up some new avenues for inquiry. It could, for example, be interesting to learn how people's flow of thought changes in different circumstances, such as under the influence of a drug 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.”