Thoughts weave their way across your mind constantly. From your first moment of consciousness after waking until you close your eyes to sleep (and sometimes, long after that), you’re generally thinking about something.
These thoughts might include garden-variety, everyday musings:
- “What a gorgeous day. I should really get out and get some sun.”
- “I need to clean out this car today.”
- “Gotta add oatmeal to the grocery list.”
Or more complex, deeper cogitations:
- “I wonder what dogs dream about.”
- “Would trying to date again improve my life?”
- “What are my long-term goals in this job?”
You might even find yourself wondering just how many thoughts you actually have, and where they all come from. Maybe you’ve even spent some time exploring ways to “turn off” certain thoughts — namely, the ones that trouble you and cause lingering distress.
Experts have plenty left to discover about how the brain works. Still, research has led to some notable findings, including the number of thoughts you have, on average, per day.
Would it surprise you to learn you have more than 6,000 thoughts per day?
The results of a
In the study, which involved 184 participants with an average age of 29.4, study authors used brain imaging scans to track when new thoughts began while participants were either resting or watching a movie.
Why did they choose to show participants movies? They explain that transitions between events in movies trigger “thought worms,” or detectable patterns of brain activity — just like thoughts that emerge spontaneously.
Since each new thought generates a new “worm,” researchers can recognize when one thought ends and the next begins.
After testing these transitions at different times, on two different days, they found a median rate of about 6.5 thought transitions per minute. This rate appeared to remain fairly consistent over time.
They concluded the study by estimating, based on this rate of 6.5 transitions each minute, that the average young adult would have more than 6,000 thoughts throughout the day.
Here’s the math, based on their estimate:
Say you get 8 hours of sleep each night. You’re awake for 16 hours each day and have exactly 6.5 thoughts per minute. (6.5 x 60 x 16 = 6,240 thoughts)
Maybe you only sleep 7 hours each night, so you’re awake for 17 hours each day. (6.5 x 60 x 17 = 6,630 thoughts)
Of course, this is just one study. This estimate isn’t a precise, conclusive measurement, though it does offer a starting place for future research.
You might find it pretty tough to reliably track how many thoughts you have yourself, but you might (somewhat less scientifically) observe that the rate varies throughout the day.
When you’re calm and relaxed, for example, your brain might seem quieter. During busy or tense times, your brain might feel jam-packed with rapid or racing thoughts that threaten to tumble right out.
Some thoughts, like fantasies about a crush or anticipation for your weekend plans, might prompt feelings of pleasure and excitement.
Unpleasant thoughts, on the other hand, might have a lingering impact on your mood and state of mind. Worries about your relationship, your performance at work, or some new and unusual health symptoms you’ve noticed — any of these can pop up and distract you from your current task or activity.
Thanks to the negativity bias, you might place more significance on these negative thoughts, even if they don’t pose an immediate or likely threat.
You might know the thing you’re worried about probably won’t happen. Even so, you find it difficult to stop thinking about and cycle through those same thoughts again and again.
Experts have yet to offer any specific estimates around the number of negative thoughts people generally have per day. That said, there’s no denying that mental health concerns, like depression and anxiety, can contribute to the number of unwanted thoughts you experience, particularly when these conditions go unaddressed.
Ruminating, or focusing on a loop of distressing or dark thoughts without exploring solutions, can happen with both
anxiety and depression.
It tends to involve the repetition of same unwanted thoughts, not completely new thoughts. But you could feel overrun by negative thoughts, all the same.
The study described above didn’t try to determine thought content, only when new thoughts began. Yet the researchers did find a connection between thought transition rate and certain Big Five personality traits.
Participants with higher openness scores experienced transitions at a lower rate. In other words, they seemed to have fewer thoughts while at rest.
Those with higher neuroticism scores, however, experienced transitions at a higher rate. Not only did they appear to have more thoughts while at rest, but they also tended to get distracted more easily while watching movie clips.
In short, scoring higher on measures of neuroticism could mean you have more thoughts — a “noisier” brain, if you will.
It could also mean more of these thoughts tend to center on distressing emotions and experiences, or potential threats to your emotional security or physical safety.
Keep in mind that neuroticism is just a personality trait, and it doesn’t automatically translate to a mental health condition. Research does suggest, though, that a higher neuroticism score is a key risk factor for both anxiety and depression.
Intrusive thoughts refer to unsettling or disturbing thoughts that invade your consciousness, often without any specific trigger. These thoughts might be sexual or violent in nature, or about behavior that embarrasses or disgusts you, so they can feel very upsetting.
A few scientific studies have explored how often these thoughts happen.
A 2014 study exploring the prevalence of intrusive thoughts involved 777 university students in 13 different countries. Study authors found that 93.6 percent of participants had experienced at least one intrusive thought in the past 3 months, and many experienced more than one.
While these studies suggest that intrusive thoughts do happen for most people from time to time, they also imply that intrusive thoughts aren’t all that frequent.
It’s worth noting that these studies involved participants who didn’t have any diagnosed mental health concerns. You might notice intrusive thoughts far more often — multiple times a day, even — if you live with certain mental health conditions, including:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- anxiety disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- eating disorders
These thoughts, again, are natural, and they don’t necessarily pose a cause for concern, especially if you have them only occasionally.
Working with a mental health professional to address intrusive thoughts and potential underlying causes might be a good option when those thoughts:
- happen frequently enough to disrupt your daily routine or sleep
- lead to worries about acting on them
- keep you from accomplishing day-to-day tasks
A deep dive into the scientific theories around how thoughts form lies beyond the scope of this particular article, but here’s a basic explanation.
Current theories hold that thoughts form when your brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, signal other cells by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. In an extremely short amount of time, countless other neurons respond, setting off a chain of firing neurons along the pathways of your brain.
While neurons can send these signals at any time, the events happening around you often cue this process, triggering thoughts related to those events.
Research from 2015 also suggested that two adjacent regions in your brain’s left temporal lobe work together to construct thoughts. These regions appear to use an algebra-like system of variables to encode known and new information into comprehensible thoughts.
As for the content of your thoughts, your everyday life often plays a key role. You’re most likely to think about the things you experience on a regular basis, after all.
This fact helps explain why such a strong link exists between mental health concerns and rumination. When distressing thoughts and emotions persist, they might feel inescapable. You might end up fixating on them, in part, because you simply don’t know how to start shaking them loose.
Thinking might be an essential skill, but it can still get in your way sometimes.
Mind wandering, or thoughts that veer off course from your current activity, happens pretty frequently for most people — during up to almost half of your daily activities, according to some research.
These distracting thoughts can create challenges when you really need to focus on your current activity, or when they lead to emotional distress.
While you probably don’t want to entirely give up your ability to think, you might wonder whether you can change the way you think.
In short: Yes, it’s absolutely possible. But it typically doesn’t involve ignoring your thoughts, actively pushing them away, or replacing them with more positive ones.
In general, the most helpful techniques for addressing unwanted thoughts include:
- Accepting the thought. When it arises, identify it, remind yourself it’s only a thought, and let it pass without giving it any more consideration or attention. Then, go back to your task.
- Practicing meditation and mindfulness.
Meditationmay help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression for some people. Other mindfulness and relaxation techniques, including breathing exercises, can also help promote inner calm and a more relaxed state of mind. With a regular meditation practice, you might notice fewer distressing thoughts over time.
- Working with a therapist. A mental health professional can help you explore underlying causes of concerning intrusive or racing thoughts. They can also help you explore possible explanations for a tendency toward distracting thoughts and difficulty focusing, along with helpful coping strategies.
Experts still have quite a bit to learn about how the brain produces thoughts and transitions between them. But at the end of the day, the amount of thoughts you have may matter less than the ways they affect you.
Research may never determine the exact number of thoughts you think each day, hour, or minute — but plenty of scientific evidence does support various approaches to addressing unwanted thoughts, including therapy and meditation.
If your thoughts frighten you, or if you feel overwhelmed and exhausted by them, a therapist can offer judgment-free support.
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