Image by Gaby Av via Flickr

A penny for your thoughts: how do people think?

By Hannah Goldswain, Scitech Editor

Thinking is second nature. We are constantly thinking about what we did, what to do next, what hasn’t been done. But what is the language of thinking? Is it words or numbers that pop into our heads as we mull things over? Pictures or colours? And if it is, how could we accomplish the unthinkable- thinking about how we think about the things we think?

If ‘think’ doesn’t even sound like a word to you anymore then we’re in the same boat. But your internal monologue must amount to something other than judging everyone’s outfit choice in Jimmy’s. And when it’s pondering other things like that formative you haven’t handed in again, or which potato college will dish up tomorrow- how are you thinking it? Are you reeling off the words like a script (why is everyone wearing flares?), seeing the image of that essay loom in your mind’s eye, or is it an emotional response (please not boiled potatoes again)?

It seems that our thoughts are more varied than we may anticipate

It turns out that how you think is quite difficult to assess and quantify, because once you start thinking about it you have lost your previous train of thought. The perfect catch-22. So, whatever you were thinking, and however you were thinking it, remain a mystery.

This begs the question of how psychologists investigate how people think. Psychologist Charles Fernyhough, a professor in psychology at Durham University, has teamed up with Russell Hurlburt, a psychologist at the University of Nevada, to look at what the inner experience of thinking consists of.

According to Hurlburt’s decade of research training people to view their inner experience of thought with more clarity, it seems that our thoughts are more varied than we may anticipate. A common misconception includes people thinking they think in words, when in fact words don’t seem to feature as much.

But researching the inner experience is easier said than done, as most people are not used to focusing on their thoughts in such a way. Prompts and questions to investigate thinking can lead people to think or answer a certain way that will inaccurately represent people’s experiences.

Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) is a method to delve into people’s thoughts that Hurlburt started to develop in the 1970s. It involves a portable device that is kept on you throughout day-to-day life. The idea is for it to beep unexpectedly and for you to cast your mind to what you were thinking just before the beep. A psychologist then asks you what was on your mind and tries to figure out what form your thoughts took in the moments before the beeps, which occur several times a day.

Maybe there’s more to the daydreams of Sunday Night Klute than you thought

In 2013, Hurlburt helped put together a review on DES which highlighted huge individual differences between people in how much time they spend talking to themselves in their head, with inner speaking ranging from 100% down to 0% in participants. This led to the formation of five categories of inner experience: inner speaking, inner seeing, feelings, sensory awareness and unsymbolised thinking. So, if you don’t talk to yourself (and even if you do), you’re still covered.

Turning to brain scans to examine if there are any correlations between what people say they are thinking and what is happening in the brain, Hurlburt and Fernyhough collaborated to investigate the use of fMRI scans. Initially trained in DES, participants were recorded during fMRI scans to see how the brain processes things. Results for the five participants were published in 2018 and suggest that what people say they are thinking about and what is actually occurring in their brain correlate.

Fernyhough told the BBC that there is “a really interesting correlation between what’s going on in their brains and what they say is going on.”

More participants in these studies could provide food for thought on how we think things the way we do. Maybe there’s more to the daydreams of Sunday Night Klute than you thought?

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