Yesterday at the gym I was reading the Ladies Home Journal on the treadmill, and I saw this remarkable claim: of the 60,000 thoughts we have each day, 95% are the same every day.
I know from direct experience and observation that people think all the time. And I am even willing to accept that someone has come up with a means of measuring the number of thoughts, presumably by electrical output, though I don’t agree that “a thought” is a uniform and measurable thing. It seems to me that some thoughts are bigger than others, and some might take longer to think, too. In fact, I think it possible that someone just roughly calculated one thought per second during waking hours and went with it.
Still, let that pass.
The part that really gets me is the “95% the same” bit. The claim is that 95% of our thoughts are things we think every day.
Some people, sure. I know a woman whose conversation is a sort of gentle dribble of health complaints and small details of her life, and I certainly had heard all of it by the time we’d met twice. And of course CNN news is like that. But I think that most of us have new thoughts. We learn things, after all, and hear new ideas. The input for our thoughts varies from day to day, and it would be quite a trick for us to hold the same thoughts in the face of all that input.
David Allen says that we need never think the same thing twice unless we want to. He may or may not be right … I haven’t achieved that myself… but it seems possible to me that we could spend some portion of our days happily contemplating the Trinity or the beauty of mathematical formulae or what we ought to knit next, and otherwise mostly go with new thoughts.
In school we learned that nearly every sentence we spoke was a brand new sentence no one had ever said before. This was something to marvel at (I’ve marveled at it before, but I went ahead and took a second to marvel again). To me, it implies that most of our thoughts — at least for those of us who think in sentences — are probably brand new, too.
But I am merely presenting the Argument From Personal Incredulity here. I want to see the raw data on that 95% claim. If people are having a thought every second then how did researchers isolate those thoughts and check their originality? I suppose you could give subjects a button, and have them press it every time a new thought came into their minds. However, there are some problems with that design. For one thing, it would greatly interfere with thought. There the subject would be, trying to decide whether that fleeting thought was new, new for the day, new for him or her, new for the world… You would be thinking so much about those questions that you would have no time for thinking anything to think those thoughts about. If you see what I mean.
If we ask subjects to think back on all their thoughts and estimate, then we are really being unscientific. I have only been up for an hour, and should therefore have a mere 3600 or so thoughts to sift through, but apart from the ones I have written here, I doubt that I could capture all the others. I got up, put away laundry, made coffee and tea, checked the want ads, and read my email, so I might guess that I had entertained a bunch of thoughts that I normally have while doing those tasks — i.e., I could guess that I had some thoughts I’ve had on most days when I do those things and conclude that a lot of my thoughts during that time must have been the same ones I have every day at that time.
However, I am not sure that I would be right if I guessed that. Making coffee is pretty routine for me, after all, and I doubt that I think, “Now I will put coffee in the filter.” In fact, it seems to me that while I was making coffee this morning, I was thinking about Storyville. Not in an organized way. I was reminded of Storyville by something I read, and I once saw a sort of opera about it, but I can’t remember the composer, I think I just went because I was dating the clarinetist at the time, and maybe there was some benefit to that idea, sort of like having all the “adult” content on the web have its own extension so people wouldn’t run into it by accident, and is it a bad thing to have so much pornography on the web, and is it really one of the main uses of the computer as some people claim, and whatever happened to that opera, it was quite good … Don’t you think that’s what a lot of our thoughts are like as we do tasks we do everyday?
The point of this highly suspect claim about the number of thoughts and the proportion of them that are the same was not, however, to say something about the human mind. It wasn’t even to exhort us to take up GTD so that we wouldn’t have to think “Where are my glasses?” every single day. It was to say that we tend to think a lot of negative things over and over. We ruminate on things we regret or worry that something bad might happen, or mentally scold ourselves for things. And we should give those things up, according to the Ladies Home Journal.
We should reject negative thoughts and think positive ones.
It seems to me that they could have said that without inventing those spurious numbers.
Today I have tutoring to do, and more attempts to get those cooking shows finished up, and more practice on my HTML. Janalisa was over for tea yesterday, and told me that I ought to send contracts off to the people who expressed an interest in my services, saying that I am looking forward to working with them, and will they please just sign and return this form… I may also see about cleaning up the manuscripts I had been doing for the store and uploading them to Lulu, since The Empress has bequeathed them to me. I don’t think they will be very profitable without a store to sell them in and workshops to promote them, but they were a lot of work to put together, so I might as well do something with them.
But I think I may also take some time to clean house and garden, and possibly even to read and knit. I can’t afford to be unemployed for long, but I might benefit from taking a little down time while I am.