I actually rather not use big fancy words like “autocorrelation” when writing articles, but it is an existing word within statistics. I thought of this concept before being aware of the statistical method of autocorrelation. It is not that difficult to understand, but I think it is a very useful concept that I will like to talk about in this article. With autocorrelation, I mean basically the on-going flow of thoughts. I know, that is still not clear. Imagine, a certain event occurs, like someone on the street yells “Dumb-ass” to you. How long will that event progress in your mind? Will you think about that for just a few seconds, will it last for like 10 minutes, or will it haunt you for the rest of the day? In the next graph you can three of these examples.
You can imagine that the presence of thoughts over time does a lot to your perceived stress, happiness, or engagement. If an event in the morning keeps being present in your mind during the day, even though you supposed to be busy with other things this can be quite annoying. But it all occurs to us quite often, when a personal issue distracts us on work, when we can’t sleep because be are stressed from work, or when we are aroused by being in love although we need to focus on our homework. Thinking about the auto-correlation of the mind just means; how long the thoughts last within the mind. Thinking quite long about things distracts us from our current activities, and accumulating thoughts will be demanding for the mind. The autocorrelation of the mind could be too long, but could also be too short. For example, when you win a million dollars and be happy for two seconds, this isn’t very healthy as well. To understand autocorrelation a bit more, I will dig into the events that modify and influence the course (autocorrelation) of the thoughts, we will discuss these in the next paragraph.
Events that affect the flow of the mind
Our mind is always active. The flow of thoughts in our mind never stops, not even at night. Thoughts pop-up and thoughts dissipate. External and internal events modify the course of our thoughts. Events can reinforce our thoughts, making them last longer within our mind. But events can also suppress or stop thoughts, making them disappear from our current thoughts. The environment and our own conscious minds play a big role here. It is quite difficult to discuss them separately because they both influence each other over time.
We process events from our environment and turn them into thoughts. Imagine that you are engaged into a discussion and someone calls you “a smart person”. Then, you will have thoughts about being smart. Thoughts like “Am I really smart?”, or “A week ago someone also looked at me funny, how is this related?” could occur in our minds. But also contrasting memories will pop-up (like the time someone called you dumb). Together, these memories will be compared with this current event, and this will modify the presence of your thoughts. Either way, I believe current events will trigger you to be prone to future events that send similar messages. For example, if someone calls you smart multiple times, and someone else applauds at you, I believe it is more likely you will perceive this as a sign implying that you are indeed smart.
Even though you might be triggered to perceive certain messages. The environment can also act as a distractor, pulling you away from the previous thoughts that were present in your mind. For example, future events can modify and change the directions of your thoughts. If one person calls you dumb, but you walk on and you see someone getting shot, this eliminates the thoughts of you being dumb. However, if someone calls you dumb just before you go to sleep all alone, it is more likely that these thoughts will meander for a while. Being distracted after a potential impacting event influences the way the event actually impacts your mind, but you could wonder whether distraction is always the most healthy technique to deal with hazardous events.
Our conscious brain
We shouldn’t forget the role of our conscious brain. After perceiving external events, we manipulate and change the course of our thoughts just by using our brain. We use our memory, cognition, to influence our thoughts. Let’s start with memory. Events that we endure are stored within our brain and processed into memory. When something occurs to us, we can relate this event to our memories. When the patterns are quite similar, we associate them together. This could make new events less or more impacting. Through using our memory we can perform tasks quicker which we’ve done before, making us think less about them. But also through memory, we can amplify events through recognizing similar but important events from the past. Memory alters the way we think about events that happen to us. But we can also use conscious thought to suppress or amplify thoughts. We can consciously stop thoughts when they are bothering us. This is a hard task to do, and could even lead to worse results. But anyway, conscious thoughts do influence the time we think about things. I think it is quite interesting that we can use thoughts to alter thoughts.
Meditation is a way to play with these thoughts. As it excludes all the external events from the environment. Meditation gives an exclusive role to the conscious brain to alter thoughts across the mind. Memory couldn’t be activated by itself, but the conscious mind could retrieve memories. With most forms of meditation, retrieving memories should be avoided and conscious thoughts should actually be reduced. I see cognition also more als guiding walls that drive the flow of thoughts towards certain directions. One of the goals during meditation could be to guide the thoughts towards a tranquil place where the flow of thoughts is close to zero. I believe that the guidance is the challenge of meditation, albeit to tranquil flows of thoughts or to turbulent parallel thoughts that encourage creativity and engaging thoughts.
But during daily life, there are a lot of events influencing us. Together, these events cause an accumulation of thoughts that we need to guide. Even when we could guide our thoughts quite well, this still requires quite some effort. We could also learn to reduce thoughts one step earlier in the process. We could reduce the stimuli of our environment. We could do this easily by 1) avoiding a busy (stimuli rich) environment or by 2) filtering stimuli. The second path requires a lot more effort. This also needs some form of meditative action where we specifically focus on certain stimuli in our environment, and thus filter the important information that is present in our current environment.