We all have our train of thoughts, as one idea shifts to another. According to scientists, an average human has over 6,000 thoughts per day. Tracking them may help catch the early signs of mental health conditions such as Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia, and predict a personality trait associated with mood swings and a pessimistic attitude.
A new study peeks into the brains to measure how thoughts jump from one topic to another. Dr. Jordan Poppenk, associate professor from Queen’s University calls them thought worms. Giving an example, he says, while making banana pancakes, your brain might think of the ingredients: bananas, eggs, pancake mix, and so on, all of which belong to the same thought worm. “But you’re then reminded of happy memories of eating pancakes as a kid, a new thought worm begins,” he told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
Dr. Poppenk studies how memory directs idle thoughts. Ideally, scientists try to read people’s thinking – but that is both expensive and time-consuming. “We had our breakthrough by giving up on trying to understand what a person is thinking about,” Dr. Poppenk said. Instead, they tried to measure when thoughts jump from one idea to another. “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 have skipped over vocabulary to understand the punctuation of the language of the mind.”
So Poppenk and his student Julie Tseng developed a method to record these changes by using a technique that creates a 3-dimensional map of the brain: functional MRI. It measures activity in the organ by looking at changes in blood flow. Scientists have used it to understand mental abilities -from memory to attention and language. Here, they imaged the brain to study when new thoughts form in 184 participants, without trying to read the content.
The researchers also studied the link between thoughts worms and neuroticism, a personality trait that describes people’s tendency to experience mood swings and a range of negative emotions such as anxiety, envy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness. The findings suggested that neurotic people have a more rapid change in thoughts. “That’s exactly what we find – the more neurotic someone is, the more thought worms they tend to have over a given period,” Dr. Poppenk noted.
He also thinks these findings can have applications in detecting early signs of mental health disorders. “It might support early detection of disordered thought in schizophrenia, or rapid thought in ADHD or mania. So we’re exploring all of these angles,” he said.
The research, however, needs more work. For instance, Poppenk studied thought worms in a young population. Further studies can investigate if different age groups show similar results, he said. He also added that functional MRI, a technique that looks into people’s brains, is powerful but expensive. “That’s probably going to prevent us from seeing thought worms from showing up in very public ways over the short term,” he explained.
The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.