The 70,000 Thoughts Per Day Myth?

By Neuroskeptic | May 9, 2012 6:23 pm

Following on from a discussion on Twitter, I’ve been trying to find out the origin of the strange meme that the average person has “70,000 thoughts per day”.

That’s a lot of thoughts. It’s about 3000 per hour or 50 per minute, just under one per second.

A lot of people believe this, according to Google. Even that esteemed neuroscientist and philosopher Dr Deepak Chopra agrees, although – being a rigorous, skeptical scientist, he acknowledged some error in his measurements and said “60,000 to 80,000″.

But where does this number come from?

Searching for the source, I discovered that 70k is only one such estimate. Other popular figures include 15k ; 60k ; and “12k to 50k”. This last one is the only number that ever seems to come with a citation as to the source: it’s attributed to “The National Science Foundation (NSF)”.

This claim was made at least as far back as 2003 by a certain Charlie Greer (“Helping Plumbing, HVAC, and Electrical service contractors Sell More at Higher Profits”).

But the NSF is a funding organization. Their main job is to hand out US government money to all kinds of different researchers. They don’t do research as such, or at least not much, so it seems unlikely that the NSF actually said this. Perhaps they funded the research that did. But whose research? I can’t find any specific sources at all.

One suggestion made on Twitter was that it could derive from Daniel Kahneman’s idea that the “psychological present” is a window of about 3 seconds – everything else is either past or future.

Kahneman has in fact used NSF funding, although so have most scientists in the USA.

Now Kahneman himself said in a talk recently that there are 600k of these “psychological presents” per month, i.e. 20k per day. If you divide a day into 3 second chunks you get about 29k a day, but I guess if you assume we’re asleep for a third of the day that makes 20k.

OK. I’m not sure life is really composed of neat equal chunks like that, and anyway, those are chunks of experience, not “thoughts”; but even if you ignore that, the weird thing is that very few people think we have 20k thoughts per day. 70k is far more common on Google.

Does anyone know where this number comes from?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: bad neuroscience, funny, media, woo
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08172964121659914379 andrew

    When I was a young associate attorney, the somewhat related question that my supervising partner asked me was how many $1,000 an hour thoughts a day I had. He claimed not to have any. I was rather more optimistic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07412263807838661843 Andrew Hickey

    I suspect the clue may be in the first digit — another widely-'known' factoid is that everyone can thing of up to seven things at once. So if you're thinking seven things at one time, you're probably thinking 7*bignum things in a day.

    (Incidentally, my subjective estimate, based on improvising music, is that I have roughly one thought of the complexity “now play C#” roughly every quarter of a second when I'm concentrating on something, but I can go whole stretches of minutes at a time without having a coherent thought cross my mind at other times).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03966730543740949237 red

    I don't think “thought” is well defined.

  • http://petrossa.wordpress.com/ petrossa

    I think it's a non issue but this is what internet thinks ;)

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/1828618/thoughts.jpg

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16799427691983018249 Ryan Stuart Lowe

    It's interesting what “science fact” memes pick up speed in the popular imagination. They are generally factoids that point towards a sense of awe.

    The common one I hear is “well, you know, we only use 5/7/10% of our brain. Just THINK of what we could accomplish if we used it all.”

    The 70k thoughts seems to play on a similar excitement: the glories of the brain! but condensed into a quantitative fact by science's number crunching mechanism.

    (the last apocryphal example: the average male thinks of sex every X seconds, where X = 3, 7, 10, etc.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07895094545069682233 InBabyAttachMode

    I agree with red: what is one thought? When does a thought start and begin? (were these two questions one thought or two? Because they were kind of related). I think thoughts come in flows rather than as single units, so it's impossible to count them…

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    7 is a number that sells like in :

    7UP drink , 7-Eleven convenience stores.

    Antiquity had seven architectural wonders in the world, seven muses. In ancient Rome -if I remember correctly- we had seven kings and seven emperors and seven hills (still there ).

    etc…

    Some neuro scientists of sort are able to sell what should be labelled ” passing thoughts” to the general public -and sometimes to their pairs reviewwing their papers.

    I call them the sexy thinkers…

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Neuroskeptic,

    To be more blunt, my answer to your question is that 7 is a sort of “magical number”- at least in western culture -and if you want to sell well to the public any numbery passing thought of yours

    to start your selling number with a 7 is a smart good marketing move.

    PS: I did not intend to offend any religious or magical belief where 7 is a sacred number.I respect those beliefs and I was just pointing to abuse of thoses beliefs in magical 7.

  • http://petrossa.wordpress.com/ petrossa

    @Ivana
    I don't respect beliefs of any sort. Why should i? From alien abductions to the flying cookiemonster in the sky, they are all just random delusions.

    Sure, have them. But respect them? Whatever for.

  • http://beyond-advaita.blogspot.in/ ramesam

    I do not know the source of 70,000. But I sat down to count every thought that passed through (a thought is a complete sentence with a meaning as the basis). I counted about 13 per sec. In a totally relaxed position, it reduces to about half (long practitioners of 'meditation' perhaps could reduce the flux density of their thoughts thus by relaxation).

    But another number that is bandied likewise is that you can observe about 40 info bits per moment consciously while the 'unconscious' mind processes 11 millions in the same time. Prof T. Wilson (author: Strangers to Ourselves) quoted this statistic in his book — I could not find any supporting experimental data / source for this claim.

    The number on 5/7/10 % of brain usage has been long ago debunked.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00187465138890222167 LokaSamasta

    How I miss my grand psychosis of 2010, when I enjoyed as many as 70,000 days per thought…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Ryan: Yeah, it reminds me of the 10% of brain myth as well. The same kind of people seem to buy into it…

    Red: No, thought is very poorly defined. Personally I have no idea where one thought ends and another begins. I have had days (mainly when depressed) where I really only had “one thought in my mind”. Of course that wasn't literally the only thing I was aware of – I could still see & hear & “think” in a short-term sense – but still, are those “thoughts”? I'm not sure.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    petrossa,

    ///@Ivana
    I don't respect beliefs of any sort. Why should i? (…)
    Sure, have them. But respect them?///

    I do not think indeed that you have to respect the beliefs in anything unplausible or irrational.

    I should have written I respect people who believe in whatever they fancy as long as they do not pretend it is science.

    Thanks for making me thinkand write more rigourously petrossa .

    One of the reason I would like to spend my last professionhal years working for aspies clients is that it is intelectually stimulating -when they are as clever as you are- and an Aspie client of any intelectual ability will almost always be critical and honest with his psychiatrist.

    What I hate are good and honest looking people selling craps to the public calling it neuroscience – beware that it sells because the man is considered a neuroscientist.

    Take the Dr out of Dr Deepak Chopra and I have nothing to complain about.

    Those people just choose to ignore that antipsychiatrists (from sects like the scientologists and some sectarian psychoanalysts) are making the most of their scientific and moral shortcommings.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Neuroskeptic said…10 May 2012 08:10

    ///Ryan: (…) The same kind of people seem to buy into it…///

    Neuroskeptic, Do you not think that the problem is not who is ti buy into it but who seels it?

    In France some psychoanalysts child psychiatrists are making the most of pseudo-neuroscience to discredit the non -psychoanalytic approaches to help autistic persons (and their mothers).

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Ivana Fulli MD said…

    errata: a gremlin in my keyboard made me write twice seels instead of sells.

    I intended to ask you :

    Neuroskeptic, Do you not think that the problem is not who is ti buy into it but who sells it?

  • Anonymous

    Francesco Sizi attempted to refute Gailileo by declaring:

    There are seven windows in the head, two nostrils, two ears, two eyes and a mouth; so in the heavens there are two favorable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury alone, undecided and indifferent. From which and many other similar phenomena of nature such as the seven metals, etc., which it were tedious to enumerate, we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven … Besides, the Jews and other ancient nations, as well as modern Europeans, have adopted the division of the week into seven days, and have named them from the seven planets; now if we increase the number of planets, this whole system falls to the ground … Moreover, the satellites are invisible to the naked eye and therefore can have no influence on the earth and therefore would be useless and therefore do not exist. (Holton & Roller, 1958, p. 160)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Well, I don't know about that, but Jupiter does kind of look like a giant eye. That Great Spot is the pupil.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16799427691983018249 Ryan Stuart Lowe

    @Ivana: I'm not sure there's always a seller. The origin of the 10% brain rule, for example, is not exactly any individual.

    I believe it began with psychologist William James, who said that he believed the average person didn't use their entire brain. But the specific percentage was made up by someone in the 1930s, misattributing it to James. And then the weird paranormal psychology ideas came after that. These memes gather strength like a game of telephone.

    I would wager that the origin of the 70,000 thought/day meme was someone who said something like “the average human thought lasts only 3 seconds” or “humans can think of 20 distinct concepts in a minute” or the like. Dicey, sure, but then someone else counted the seconds in a day and made a larger claim — and then a dozen journalists hopped on that with varying translations.

    So it may be more a question of why we buy the misinformation, rather than why someone sold it. In a lot of these cultural arguments, the sellers are all middlemen.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Ryan: Yep, my thoughts exactly.

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Ryan,

    Actually I agree with you- and Neuroskeptic then.

    Freud was living in Vienna at a time where sex was an obsession.Some sects are borrowing from Star Treck etc…And who wrote that even Jesus was a man of Tiberius ' time and culture?

    My point was that scientologists and French psychoanalysts are making the most of the ridicule of the “sexiest neuroscience” that some -often good looking and articulate- people arer making money with ( sell books and seminars, publicity rights on their website-you name it.

    On the contrary, in the history of engineering and medicine alike,you can see that very often the ones who did invent useful things and new concepts have a very hard time to be heard (from inventing the fax machine, the microwave oven, the shipcontainer to washing your hands before performing surgery and help birth delivery or to prove that a bacteria causes stomach ulcer etc…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18001492312162861823 Richard Gipps

    On what it is to have a thought anyway: Imagine that you walk into the church and your friend says 'Where do you think the priest is?' and you say 'In the sacristry'. This of course is not a cogitation of yours that had gone through your mind as a piece of internal speech. Nevertheless it was the right answer to a request to be informed about what one thinks. When we think of thoughts in this (more dispositional) sense the idea that there is some specific number that we have each day becomes absurd. Even when we consider those thoughts that are occurrent cogitations we would need to stipulate a, rather than rely on some alleged pre-existing, meaning which would enable us to distinguish or assimilate the cogitation that the priest is in the sacristry and the cogitation that the priest is in the sacristry putting his robes on.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    Richard Gipps: Good point.

  • Anonymous

    Kahneman is *not* the source for the 3 second psychological present. Perhaps he popularized the concept, but there are many others who pioneered it. Time researchers, e.g. Ernst Poeppel.

    The only reason this matters is that people tend to cite popularizers of science (Gladwell or Lehrer) vs. the actual “creators” of that science. Understandable, but please don't do that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04760966433600014552 Unknown

    Haha and where did they get this idea that we think the same thoughts everyday?

  • Ana

    I´m journalist and I am always looking for the source of everything I write in my blog. I cannot just reproduce a myth :( I´ll keep searching. Thanks for your article guys, Ana.

  • Rick C

    The number does not just refer to your conscious thoughts. Just typing that last sentence was a long series of thoughts, including tapping the keys and spelling the words – during which I also noted a squeaking noise, decided I liked a song that was playing, and glanced at the clock. And there is a whole lot more thinking going on beneath the surface. As it turns out, 70,000 is a very conservative number compared to the 600,000+ possible thoughts a person can have each day, which works out to 10 thoughts every second.

    Read the scientific formula at the site below (click the “every-thought” link on the homepage)

    http://www.aesthetic-machinery.com/every-thing.html

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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