Thought periodicity

After he read my blog about my local crosswalk (, a friend suggested I read The Mezzanine,  by Nicholson Baker (published in 1988). I guess he thought it would be up my alley since the author analyses quite mundane occurrences in everyday life in great detail. It was a great read! (see original review of the book in the New York Times, I especially liked the last chapter, where the author describes reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on a bench at the end of his lunch break and feels pressed to “consider practising philosophy on the scant raw materials of my life”. He muses about counting how often he thinks about different things, to describe his periodicity of thoughts, map out his relative frequency of thoughts, and divide them up into humdrum ones (e.g., my face is itchy, I need to go to the washroom), and more interesting ones, which he calls mid-frequency thoughts (e.g., thinking about his girlfriend, or a specific joke). Then there are the lost thoughts, those in storage that are not attended to, left to whither.

When I look at my quantified self activities, it seems like it all begins with increasing the “raw materials of my life”, accumulating lists of data, writings, photos, computer files. Some may confuse that with hoarding, but there is an honest underlying goal of organizing and learning from the material, however daunting the task may be. Among all this detail, I’m somewhat reassured by reading that Baker mentions the word “periodicity”. Most all self quantified measurements can be thought of as being periodic. Yes, we have a wide variety of experiences, but within a solid framework of recurring events, starting with our heartbeats, our breathing and steps. So what about studying a periodicity of thoughts?

How to measure thought periodicity?

I started to read a bit more on the internet about thought periodicity and found very little. Most recent information seems to be centred on how many thoughts we have per day, with the number ranging from 50,000 to 70,000. It’s hard to find the source for those numbers or even a clear definition of what a thought is. Are they also including sleep and dreams? There are 86,400 seconds in a day but we are only awake for about 16 hours a day, on average, making 57,600 seconds available. So 50,000 thoughts would mean around 0.87 thoughts per second, and 70,000 thoughts would mean 1.2 thoughts per second. Lots of thoughts.

I made a feeble attempt to try to calculate how many thoughts I had per minute by just writing down, during three consecutive minutes, how many thoughts came up. I was able to write down 10-20 thoughts per minute, which means a rather low 9,600-19,200 thoughts per day (waking hours). Given, I had the thought and wrote it down, which some may seen as another thought or two, or more (I had a thought, I think that I have to write down the thought, I use the pen to write on paper and then prepare to think about a new thought). In any case, I’m not so interested about the micro or humdrum thoughts or neural beeps that go off per second. Catching every single thought sounds a bit like catching trout in a stream with your bare hands, all the fish are there, underneath you, but slippery and almost impossible to grab onto, and when you do get one, and take it out of the water for an instant, it’s no longer a fish in its habitat, it squirms around and quickly slips out of your hands again.

I’m more interested in analysing a periodicity of deeper thoughts, that are a bit longer and substantial, like how often I think about my cholesterol levels, or my need for a new pair of glasses, or my son’s grades, or my happiness at work. With my log book I can see how often I write about those things, but it’s going to be harder to get into brain level. I need a Rescue Time for thoughts. Anybody working on that?


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