The research used subjects trained in Mahasi Vipassana mindfulness techniques. They were asked to report the occurrence of thoughts during sessions when they were either left alone or provided with verbal stimuli. As well as reporting the occurrence of a thought, they were asked to categorise it as image, narrative, emotion or bodily sensation (seems a little restrictive to me – I can imagine having two at once or a thought that doesn’t fit any of the categories). At the same time brain activity was measured by fMRI scan.
Overall the study found many regions implicated in the generation of spontaneous thought; the researchers point to the hippocampus as a region of particular interest, but there were plenty of other areas involved. A common view is that when our attention is not actively engaged with tasks or challenges in the external world the brain operates the Default Mode Network (DMN); a set of neuronal areas which appear to produce detached thought (we touched on this a while ago); the new research complicates this picture somewhat or at least suggests that the DMN is not the unique source of spontaneous thoughts. Even when we’re disengaged from real events we may be engaged with the outside world via memory or in other ways.
Noë’s short commentary rightly points to the problem involved in using specially trained subjects. Normal subjects find it difficult to report their thoughts accurately; the Vipassana techniques provide practice in being aware of what’s going on in the mind, and this is meant to enhance the accuracy of the results. However, as Noë says, there’s no objective way to be sure that these reports are really more accurate. The trained subjects feel more confidence in their reports, but there’s no way to confirm that the confidence is justified. In fact we could go further and suggest that the special training they have undertaken may even make their experience particularly unrepresentative of most minds; it might be systematically changing their experience. These problems echo the methodological ones faced by early psychologists such as Wundt and Titchener with trained subjects. I suppose Ellamil et al might retort that mindfulness is unlikely to have changed the fundamental neural architecture of the brain and that their choice of subject most likely just provided greater consistency.
Where do ‘spontaneous’ thoughts come from? First we should be clear what we mean by a spontaneous thought. There are several kinds of thought we would probably want to exclude. Sometimes our thoughts are consciously directed; if for example we have set ourselves to solve a problem we may choose to follow a particular strategy or procedure. There are lots of different ways to do this, which I won’t attempt to explore in detail: we might hold different aspects of the problem in mind in sequence; if we’re making a plan we might work through imagined events; or we might even follow a formal procedure of some kind. We could argue that even in these cases what we usually control is the focus of attention, rather than the actual generation of thoughts, but it seems clear enough that this kind of thinking is not ‘spontaneous’ in the expected sense. It is interesting to note in passing that this ability to control our own thoughts implies an ability to divide our minds into controller and executor, or at least to quickly alternate those roles.
Also to be excluded are thoughts provoked directly by outside events. A match is struck in a dark theatre; everyone’s eyes saccade involuntarily to the point of light. Less automatically a whole variety of events can take hold of our attention and send our thoughts in a new direction. As well as purely external events, the sources in such cases might include interventions from non-mental parts of our own bodies; a pain in the foot, an empty stomach.
Third, we should exclude thoughts that are part of a coherent ongoing chain of conscious cogitation. These ‘normal’ thoughts are not being directed like our problem-solving efforts, but they follow a thread of relevance; by some connection one follows on from the next.
What we’re after then is thoughts that appear unbidden, unprompted, and with no perceivable connection with the thoughts that recently preceded them. Where do they come from? It could be that mere random neuronal noise sometimes generates new thoughts, but it seems unlikely to be a major contributor to me: such thoughts would be likely to resemble random nonsense and most of our spontaneous thought seem to make a little more sense than that.
We noticed above that when directing our thoughts we seem to be able to split ourselves into controller and controlled. As well as passing control up to a super-controller we sometimes pass it down, for example to the part of our mind that gets on with the details of driving along a route while the surface of our mind us engaged with other things. Clearly some part of our mind goes on thinking about which turnings to take; is it possible that one or more parts of our mind similarly goes on thinking about other topics but then at some trigger moment inserts a significant thought back into the main conscious stream? A ‘silent’ thinking part of us like this might be a permanent feature, a regular sub- or unconscious mind; or it might be that we occasionally drop threads of thought that descend out of the light of attention for a while but continue unheard before popping back up and terminating. We might perhaps have several such threads ruminating away in the background; ordinary conscious thought often seems rather multi-threaded. Perhaps we keep dreaming while awake and just don’t know it?
There’s a basic problem here in that our knowledge of these processes, and hence all our reports, rely on memory. We cannot report instantaneously; if we think a thought was spontaneous it’s because we don’t remember any relevant antecedents; but how can we exclude the possibility that we merely forgot them? I think this problem radically undermines our certainty about spontaneous thoughts. Things get worse when we remember the possibility that instead of two separate thought processes, we have one that alternates roles. Maybe when driving we do give conscious attention to all our decisions; but our mind switches back and forth between that and other matters that are more memorable; after the journey we find we have instantly forgotten all the boring stuff about navigating the route and are surprised that we seem to have done it thoughtlessly. Why should it not be the same with other thoughts? Perhaps we have a nagging worry about X which we keep spending a few moments’ thought on between episodes of more structured and memorable thought about something else; then everything but our final alarming conclusion about X gets forgotten and the conclusion seems to have popped out of nowhere.
We can’t, in short, be sure that we ever have any spontaneous thoughts: moreover, we can’t be sure that there are any subconscious thoughts. We can never tell the difference, from the inside, between a thought presented by our subconscious, and one we worked up entirely in intermittent and instantly-forgotten conscious mode. Perhaps whole areas of our thought never get connected to memory at all.
That does suggest that using fMRI was a good idea; if the problem is insoluble in first-person terms maybe we have to address it on a third-person basis. It’s likely that we might pick up some neuronal indications of switching if thought really alternated the way I’ve suggested. Likely but not guaranteed; after all a novel manages to switch back and forth between topics and points of view without moving to different pages. One thing is definitely clear; when Noë pointed out that this is more difficult than it may appear he was absolutely right.