Our minds are constantly abuzz, flitting from one thought to the next and back again. How many of these flitting thoughts do we have in a day?
Research out of Queen’s University in Canada found that humans have around 6.5 thoughts per minute or about 6,000 per day, assuming 8 hours of sleep (and discounting thoughts while sleeping). The researchers used data from functional MRI brain scans of 184 volunteers and were able to note when brains shifted from one thought to the next. More specifically, the researchers focused on when the subjects were focused on a single idea, something they described as a “thought worm,” and then when the subject moved to the next thought worm.
Having 6.5 thoughts per minute is a thought every nine seconds. That’s a lot of thoughts. So, if you feel like your mind is always racing, you’re not alone!
Here’s an interesting sidebar: while 6,000 thoughts a day is a lot of thoughts, it pales in comparison to a commonly-cited figure of 60,000 thoughts a day that experts and laypeople alike have spread across the internet. Here’s a common assertion of this “fact”: “According to the National Science Foundation, an average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive thoughts.” Even Deepak Chopra has spread this myth (even though he’s now removed his blog post where he asserts this).
This sounds compelling, but it turns out that there is no such National Science Foundation study. The first clue is that the NSF is a funding organization, not a research body. The “Neuroskeptic” at Discover Magazine dug into the source of this myth and found that it likely could be traced to a blog post by a man named Charlie Greer on his site which helps “PLUMBING, HVAC, and ELECTRICAL contractors become MILLIONAIRES every day.”
This provides a great lesson on checking sources. Article after article after article has cited this 60,000 thought figure and has merely cited a different article, never the supposed original study. Now that this “fact” is out there it is nearly impossible to undo it. It’s a perfect example of what’s known as Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. Here’s the IFOD on Brandolini’s Law (it’s great to keep in mind).