The fleeting images and phrases that occupy our minds are an integral part of our lives. Neuroimaging estimates based on brain state transitions show that we can have four to eight thoughts per minute. Even taking into account some periods of tiredness or apathy and many periods devoted to watching, reading or listening, this can mean several thousand thoughts a day.
Various psychological disorders cause changes in the flow of thought. Manic states, attention deficits, and anxiety often increase the rate of thought, while depression and dementia can reduce it.
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Our spontaneous thoughts
Many thoughts can be classified as spontaneous or involuntary. They arise in the mind; they are not deliberate or invoked in our reasoning or in our attempts to scrutinize our memory. They can be ideas or intuitions arising from a current situation, intrusive thoughts related to worries, or “free associations” when the mind wanders. Some are also autobiographical memories related to recent experiences.
Where do our spontaneous thoughts come from? Obviously, they can derive their origin from an environmental stimulation; ideas evoked by what we see and hear. However, spontaneous thoughts often arise when the environment is relatively stable, such as when walking or sitting on a bus.
Spontaneous thoughts often arise from fragments of sentences, images, actions, and abstract information that provide our long-term memory.
This information corresponds to the activity of networks of neurons that are generally inactive, but that are activated simultaneously when the network is stimulated. Stimulated neural networks compete with each other for access to consciousness, and the competitive strength of networks is influenced by their relevance to our situation, goals, needs, interests, or emotions. We think more easily about food when we are hungry, but also when we have an important dinner to prepare.
Emotions play a key role in many types of spontaneous thoughts. For example, emotions impose intrusive thoughts on us, so we focus on high-priority information, such as threats, frustrations, or opportunities. Anxiety often produces intrusive thoughts that point to real or imaginary threats. In the case of post-traumatic stress, it can cause flashbacks and rumination.
While negative emotions push us toward a certain urgency, positive emotions seem to facilitate more distant or unusual associations that foster memorization and creativity. For example, euphoria and passion often lead to optimistic anticipations or imaginative ideas.
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Even when we are not experiencing strong emotions, sometimes weak emotions, or microemotions such as worries, desires, irritation, stress, surprise, or interest activate our spontaneous thoughts.
Unlike strong emotions, microemotions are brief, unobtrusive, and often unconscious. They mainly trigger micromovements such as slight muscle tension or facial microexpressions, and produce small physiological reactions, such as adrenaline secretion and cardiovascular responses.
Micropores often trigger “what if …?” Thoughts. and worries that feed anxiety through a positive feedback loop, a source of insomnia. Wishes regularly trigger thoughts such as goals, desires, and conversation topics. Micro-emotions of guilt or pride trigger moral intuitions of disapproval or early approval from others, which are essential to developing prosocial behavior. Micro-emotions of boredom or desire for stimulation can cause the mind to be distracted or vague and can be the cause of some symptoms of inattention. Micro-emotions of interest, pleasure, or sadness can provoke creative thoughts.
Microemotions influence our thoughts in many ways. They distract us from their current object, sensitize sensory systems to notice things related to their dominant subject, and facilitate the retrieval of memories and information related to that subject. Microemotions are triggered in themselves by a perception or idea, often unconscious, meaningful enough to subtly activate emotional systems.
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Emotions can activate spontaneous thoughts through various brain circuits centered on a part of the emotional circuits of our brain, called the amygdala. This center of our emotions learns by association the emotional meaning of our thoughts. Thanks to these associations, the amygdala triggers the emotions resulting from our thoughts and, in turn, directs our attention and our thoughts according to our emotions.
When the thought evoked by an emotion is in itself a source of emotion, a loop is created between the thought and the emotion that holds the emotion. This loop of thought-emotion is stopped by a distraction or a competing emotion.
Finally, spontaneous thoughts are largely motivated thoughts: every minute, feelings drive our attention, our inner voice, and our mental theater toward a specific topic. Better control of stress, emotions, and daily experiences can improve the quality of these spontaneous thoughts and the satisfaction they bring.
An article originally published in “The Conversation”. Read the original article.