New study suggests we have 6,200 thoughts every day

fMRI scans show each new thing you think of as a "thought worm."

New study suggests we have 6,200 thoughts every day
Image source: The Creative Exchange/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • The study passes on figuring out what we think, focusing instead on the frequency of thought.
  • Consistent neurological signals identify the transitions between thoughts.
  • fMRI scans tracked participants' thoughts while they watched movies and when they were at rest.

A new study from psychologists at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario reports observations of the transition from one thought to another in fMRI brain scans. Though the researchers didn't detect the content of our thoughts, their method allowed them to count each one. Referred to as "thought worms," the team says that the average human has 6,200 thoughts per day.

"What we call 'thought worms' are adjacent points in a simplified representation of activity patterns in the brain," said senior study author Jordan 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."

The study was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

nervous system neurons in brain

Billion Photos / Shutterstock

Not so much the 'what' as the 'when'

There's been a fair amount of research devoted to understanding what a person is thinking based on observations of brain activity. However, the only way to know what a particular pattern of brain activity means would be to recognize its similarity to a brain-activity template known to represent that type of thought. Few such templates are available thus far, and they're time-consuming and expensive to produce.

Poppenk and his MA student Julie Tseng went another way. "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," said Poppenk. He adds, "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."

A thought, says the study, is generally viewed by researchers as a mental state, a "transient cognitive or emotional state of the organism." Poppenk says that since such states are relatively stable in terms of brain activity — sustained attention being most closely associated with the angular gyrus — it's possible to identify transitions between one state and another using fMRI data from individual participants. "We argue that neural meta-state transitions can serve as an implicit biological marker of new thoughts," the study reads.

The researchers verified their hypothesis using fMRI scans from two groups of participants: some who were watching movies, and others who were in a resting state. "Transitions detected by our methods predict narrative events, are similar across task and rest, and are correlated with activation of regions associated with spontaneous thought."

"Being able to measure the onset of new thoughts gives us a way," explains Poppenk, "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."

The use of fMRIs is key, he adds. "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."

brain scans showing activity

Spontaneous thought and attention regions distinguish transitions from meta-stability

Image source: Poppenk, et al

Have you thought your 6,200 thoughts yet today?

While we average 6,200 thought worms a day, Poppenk anticipates further research tracking the manner in which the number of daily thoughts an individual has may change over the course of a lifetime. Likewise, he's interested in investigating potential associations between how quickly a person jumps from one thought to another and other mental and personality traits. "For example," he says, "how does mentation rate — the rate at which thought transitions occur — relate to a person's ability to pay attention for a long period?"

In addition, the researcher wonders if "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."

"We think the methods offer a lot of potential," Poppenk says. "We hope to make heavy use of them in our upcoming work."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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