Research on wandering thoughts may offer clues to mental health

Where does your mind go when you have free time? A study conducted by the University of Arizona and published in Scientific Reports may offer some clues, and the results reveal a surprising amount of our sanity.

78 participants were trained to express their thoughts aloud for 10 minutes while sitting alone in a room with no access to electronic devices. The researchers used audio equipment to record these thoughts, then transcribed the recordings and analyzed the content. In total, over 2,000 thoughts were analyzed.

We wanted to emulate the little breaks we have throughout the day like standing in line at a cafe, taking a shower, staying in bed at night, etc. These are all times when external demands are minimal and internal thoughts tend to creep in. “

Quentin Raffaelli, first author, graduate student, UArizona Department of Psychology

According to the authors, most psychology research focusing on human thinking tells people what to think about, asks participants to remember what they thought a few minutes ago, or uses self-report questionnaires to capture insights. freeze frame snapshots of thoughts at different points in time, according to the authors. .

“While insightful in itself, this instantaneous approach doesn’t tell us much about how thoughts unfold and change over time – characteristics of thinking that we think are important to our mental health. To capture these dynamic properties of thought, we need a method that records thoughts in real time and over long periods of time, ”said co-author Jessica Andrews-Hanna, assistant professor of psychology who oversaw the research. in his laboratory.

Other co-authors include Caitlin Mills, Assistant Professor at the University of New Hampshire, as well as Arizona Associate Professors of Psychology Mary-Frances O’Connor, Matthias Mehl and Matthew Grilli, graduate student Eric Andrews, undergraduate students Kate Chambers, Nadia-Anais de Stefano and Surya Fitzgerald, Ramsey Wilcox Laboratory Coordinator, as well as Kalina Christoff, professor at the University of British Columbia.

A window to the mind

Researchers have sought to measure thought patterns. They were especially interested in capturing ruminative thoughts, continually thinking the same negative thoughts, which is a common symptom of depression.

“While most participants spent the 10 minutes thinking about the present or the future in an emotionally neutral way, participants who scored high on a rumination questionnaire had more past-centered thoughts. and negative, ”Raffaelli said. “Ruminant individuals were also more likely to think for themselves.”

The authors tracked certain thoughts over time, measuring how long they lasted and how narrow or wide they were. Ruminant individuals had negative thoughts that lasted longer than positive thoughts, and these negative thoughts gradually narrowed in their subject over time.

“We got to see how some people got trapped in persevering thought cycles,” Andrews-Hanna said. “We recruited a random group of people without knowing if they had been diagnosed with a clinical condition for this study, but it is striking that in just 10 minutes of downtime we can capture thought processes that talk about many different mental health conditions. “

Some people, on the other hand, have found the 10 minutes productive and inspiring.

“Some participants thought of positive topics or goals they wanted to achieve,” said Andrews-Hanna. “The thoughts of others were quite creative. Many participants found the exercise to provide a refreshing break from the busy world around them.”

The exercise was not designed for therapeutic potential, but many people viewed it as a therapy session on their own.

“There is research on the power to exteriorize our inner thoughts through journaling or sharing thoughts with others that I think this study is indirectly harnessing,” Andrews-Hanna said.

Idle thinking as a skill

The study ended before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the results seem more relevant than ever, as many people have experienced more lonely inactivity time in the past year and a half than at any other moment of their life.

The authors also performed a version of this study while the pandemic was on hold and are now analyzing the results.

“Having to sit at home for so long has dramatically affected people’s mental well-being,” Raffaelli said. “We have seen it with the increase in anxiety and depression during the pandemic and the drug addiction surge.”

When not locked, downtime can be scarce.

“Taking mental breaks seems to be increasingly underrated in today’s busy and distracted society,” Andrews-Hanna said. “Western societies seem to reinforce a way of life where we are always on the move, taking our work home with us or entertaining ourselves with emails or social media.”

Although the study did not measure it, the authors believe that training people from childhood to feel comfortable during periods of inactivity can help maintain mental well-being.

“By taming our reflex to pull out our phones whenever there is a moment of silence, we can better realize the benefits of the breaks on our mental health and creativity,” Raffaelli said.

The next step

Andrews-Hanna and her lab team are interested in the Default Mode Network, a brain network that plays an important role in internal thoughts. They studied its functions and explained how it could go wrong in people with dysfunctional thought styles, such as rumination or intrusive thoughts.

Their work has potential links to functional magnetic resonance imaging, or resting fMRI, a popular method of brain imaging used by neuroscientists for brain imaging. The technique involves placing a person in a brain scanner for about 10 minutes and recording patterns of brain activity and connectivity as spontaneous thoughts emerge.

“Ultimately, we hope to connect the psychological characteristics of idle thinking with biological patterns of activity and connectivity that change over time to provide a more complete picture of consciousness and sanity,” Andrews-Hanna said. “We hope that one day our inner mental life will no longer be a mystery.”


Journal reference:

Raffaelli, Q., et al. (2021) The thinking aloud paradigm reveals differences in the content, dynamics, and conceptual scope of resting state thinking in trait thinking. Scientific reports.

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