The average person will typically have more than 6,000 thoughts in a single day, new research into the human brain suggests.
The statistic comes from a team of psychology experts at Queen's University in Canada, who say they have developed a never-before-seen way to detect when one thought ends and another begins, as described in a paper published in Nature Communications.
The academic project—which was led by Jordan Poppenk, from the Department of Psychology, and Masters student Julie Tseng—outlines a method of isolating specific moments when a human is focused on a single idea, a phenomenon the researchers described as a "thought worm."
The researchers said the study shows how measuring thoughts can predict a person's personality, estimating the average human will have about 6,200 thoughts per day.
"Thought worms are adjacent points in a simplified representation of activity patterns in the brain," Poppenk, who is an expert in the field of cognitive neuroscience, said in a statement. "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. 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."
The findings build on existing cognitive neuroscience research that dates back over a decade, providing new insights into the flow of thoughts. Previously, research has been focused on using brain imaging in an attempt to find what a person is thinking about, comparing activity to known brain patterns.
One big limitation of this approach has been that researchers need a template for every idea they want to observe—meaning the process is costly and time-consuming.
"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 said. "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 research paper notes that scientists are increasingly interested in studying how human consciousness "flows continuously from one thought to the next."
According to a university media release, researching this spontaneous thought can help test how our brain patterns and thoughts are influenced by external influences, from drinking a cup of coffee to watching a movie for a second time.
"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," Poppenk said. "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."
In the future, the team plans to look at how cognitive dynamics "vary across the lifespan" and attempt to better understand how mentation rate—the time it takes for a person's thought to move on—relates to their individual personal qualities. "For example, how does mentation rate relate to a person's ability to pay attention for a long period?" Poppenk said.
"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. We think the methods offer a lot of potential; we hope to make heavy use of them in our upcoming work."