My mind sampling results

One of the projects in my week long hackathon was to make a system to sample my own mind with a random alarm.

This was crudely based on Hurlburt’s Descriptive Experience Sampling – there are lots of papers about that method, for an introduction see this overview BBC article or my own post about a book on the topic. Hurlburt has for a few years now released videos of the method in progress, which are long and excellent – I’ve watched a lot of the first batch sampling Lena.

There are substantial differences in what I did from the academic method, notably:

  • I didn’t use a sharp alarm sound, but a distinctive slightly musical one.
  • My sound stopped after a few seconds, so I didn’t have to turn it off.
  • My alarm was not direct into my ear via a headpiece, but just ambiently from my phone. The directness apparently drills into the mind interrupting more cleanly (source: introductory Lena video)
  • I didn’t use a paper notebook but a note taking app on my phone, and that distracted me while I was trying to capture my mental experience.
  • Hurlburt is very clear that the discussion with an expert within 24 hours of taking samples is critical, and leads to better samples after the first couple of days. I didn’t discuss my samples with anyone, and I only reflected on them immediately after taking them.
  • I tried to immediately categorise my thoughts with Hurlburt’s Codebook for DES. That’s meant to be a separate process done by researchers after open-mindedly investigating the actual phenomena that is happening.

All that said, I still found this amateur exercise useful. I took 46 samples, 9 of which had more than one category. This is the percentage of samples which had each category in them – so the total is more than 100%:

Unsymbolised thinking30.4%
Just reading26.1%
Just doing19.6%
Just listening13.0%
Inner speech8.7%
Just watching 8.7%
Sensory awareness4.3%

The 2008 paper by Hurlburt is a good one which gives how common the different categories happen in a population of psychology students, for something to compare to.

Some thoughts:

  • Of the top 5 most common phenomena (imagination/unsymbolized/inner speech/emotion/sensory – as per the 2008 paper by Hurlburt), I mainly use unsymbolized thinking, then inner speech, then feeling emotion, then very little sensory awareness. No imagination. This wasn’t a big surprise to me – I got into this topic by realising I’m mostly aphantasic.
  • A lot of the time I am taking in content whether text, audio or video, and not thinking conceptually about it or feeling emotion about it. That feels a bit too much, maybe I could be conscious of when I’m just surfing on incoming content. Reduce content that doesn’t make me think. Or maybe I am thinking more than the samples show, it is just subconscious.
  • They talk in one of the Lena videos about “scrolling” with nothing else going on being a common experience now, and imply it is bad (although of course are not meant to have opinions about that).
  • 19.6% of the time “just doing” feels like a good amount, and I like that I do that a lot. Feels connected, present, focussed.
  • My categories are probably wrong. I read the codebook quite a lot while doing this, but I don’t think I’ve learnt it in the detailed way the researchers using it have.
  • I was between jobs in this period, and reading and doing side projects a lot. I’d get different results if working. Although, I don’t think I could do it in a social work context – I didn’t like taking samples when people were around, and ignored them.

A key observation I had while doing the exercise was that something much richer is happening in my mind than is captured by the categories – it often felt subtle and complex. In the Lena videos, her inner experiences are similarly rich and complicated and multifaceted to dig into. This is why categorisation should happen later – the qualitative analysis of the samples is really important.

Qualitatively I found doing this revealing, although can’t really write clearly what it specifically revealed. The attention feels useful in terms of understanding myself for improving how I relate to the world – in terms of the content of samples, and what I spend my time doing.

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