What you think about during idle time may contain essential indicators of your mental health. The corresponding study was published in Nature by researchers at the University of Arizona.
Often, psychology research into human thought works by telling people what to think about or asking them to recall what they were thinking about at some point in time. For this study, however, the researchers thought to approach the matter differently- by recording thoughts as they were being produced.
To do so, they trained 78 participants to voice thoughts aloud. They then asked them to sit alone in a room without access to electronic devices and speak what they were thinking.
The researchers recorded these thoughts with audio equipment, transcribed them, and then analyzed their content for traits such as length, negativity, past-orientation, and self-focus. Altogether, the researchers captured over 2,000 thoughts.
"We wanted to mimic the small breaks we have throughout the day, such as when waiting in line at a café, taking a shower, lying in bed at night and so on. These are all times during which external demands are minimal and internal thoughts tend to creep in," said first author of the study, Quentin Raffaelli.
The researchers found that negative thoughts were linked to a narrowing of conceptual scope over time. To see how this related to rumination, a common symptom of depression, they repeated the study, this time asking students to complete a Rumination Response Scale questionnaire to assess their tendency to ruminate.
The researchers subsequently found that higher rumination questionnaire scores were linked to more negative, past-oriented, and self-focused thoughts. The researchers also found that as rumination scores increased, positive thoughts became shorter, and negative ones longer.
"We were able to witness how some people became trapped in perseverative cycles of thinking," said co-author Jessica Andrews-Hanna. "We recruited a random group of people without knowing if they were diagnosed with any clinical condition for this study, yet it's striking that in just 10 minutes of down time, we can capture thought processes that speak to many different mental health conditions."
"Eventually, we hope to connect the psychological characteristics of idle thought to the biological patterns of activity and connectivity changing across time to provide a fuller picture of consciousness and mental health [...] We hope that one day, our inner mental lives won't be as much of a mystery,” she added.