The VICE Guide to Right Now

Researchers Now Know Just How Many Thoughts You Have in a Day

The discovery of "thought worms" can also help detect when one thought ends and another begins.
July 17, 2020, 8:15am
woman thinking
Photo courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

We have all had days when we think—overthink—so much, it's hard to keep track of where one thought ends and another begins. Like, just this morning, I started off thinking about how I barely got any sleep last night because I spent all night thinking about my ex from years ago which led me to think about that one time I blew all my chances by embarrassing myself in front of the cutest cashier I’d ever seen which led me to think about how none of it might matter since the world was anyway ending which led me to think about… well, you get my point. And then there are days when this stream of consciousness becomes just a bit too much, making us wish we wouldn’t be able to think at all. If you, too, thought you had too many thoughts to keep track of, turns out you might just be right.

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Researchers have just revealed in a new study that we have over 6,000 individual thoughts on an average day.

Dr Jordan Poppenk and his student Julie Tseng from Queen’s University in Canada have established a method that, for the first time ever, can detect where one thought ends and another begins. In a paper published on July 13 in the science journal Nature Communications, the researchers devised a way to isolate specific moments when a human is focused on a single idea—a phenomenon they described as a "thought worm."

“What we call thought worms are adjacent points in a simplified representation of activity patterns in the brain," explains Poppenk. "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." Earlier, thought transitions often relied on what people said they thought, not the best way of tracking these patterns. "Thought transitions have been elusive throughout the history of research on thought, which has often relied on volunteers describing their own thoughts, a method that can be notoriously unreliable. Being able to measure the onset of new thoughts gives us a way to peek into the ‘black box’ of the resting mind—to explore the timing and pace of thoughts when a person is just daydreaming about dinner and otherwise keeping to themselves.”

Researchers have been working for quite a while to understand "what" our brain thinks about at any given point in a day. They made advancements here by comparing brain activity to a series of known templates of thought patterns in the brain. But in addition to what people are thinking about, researchers are also increasingly interested in how people think. And these researchers from Queen’s University had their breakthrough by focusing not on what people are thinking about, but when they have moved on. “Our methods help us detect when a person is thinking something new, without regard to what the new thought is,” adds Poppenk.

Dr Poppenk says knowing when thoughts change is going to bring new research discoveries in the field. They have shown that their thought measures can predict aspects of a person’s personality. “Basic research into ‘spontaneous thought’—about how, exactly, thoughts flow from one to another—may help us to better understand practical questions such as how drinking a cup of coffee influences the nature of our thinking, or how our thoughts proceed differently when we watch a movie a second time,” reads the media release.

In the future, the researchers are looking forward to exploring how thoughts turn over and how that may relate to an individuals’ other qualities—such as if the frequency in the change of thoughts relates to a person’s ability to pay attention for a longer period.

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