On Ruminating and Intrusive Thinking…

I’ve been thinking a lot about rumination recently… actually have been for quite a while. Obviously, rumination can  hinder productivity. Psychologists have looked at the dark-side of rumination, to the point of defining it as counterproductive.  However, some measure of obsession and tenacity is required in order to stick with and solve hard problems. The history of expertise and creativity in science are a testament to such tenacity. (See the discussion of cognitive miserliness and other thinking dispositions in Cognitive Productivity. [Footnote 1] )

Understanding rumination is also central to understanding emotions. A core feature of emotion —at least of an important class of emotions — is “perturbance”. To understand perturbance I need to introduce another term, insistence. Insistence, in a nutshell (and perturbance by definition is difficult to keep in a nutshell),  is a motivator’s propensity to engage attention (or “mental resources”). Perturbance is a condition of the mind in which an insistent motivator (or cluster of motivators) is at play. The framework that Aaron Sloman, colleagues and I developed that explains perturbance can also explain intrusive thinking and rumination.

Call me obsessive, but perturbance is a theoretical concept that has been near and dear to me for over 25 years… In 1996, Ian Wright, Aaron Sloman and I published a paper applying the concept of perturbance to grief. I’ve recently modernized the concept and made new connections between the mechanisms responsible for perturbance and that of an important psychological function. Sorry to be so vague! The details will be published in a paper of mine in the not-too-distant future.

Meanwhile, I published a few of my thoughts on rumination in relation to sleep earlier today on the mySleepButton web site. Enjoy 🙂 .


[Footnote 1:] In an important article on this subject, Edward R. Watkins of Essex University in  “Constructive and Unconstructive Repetitive Thought” also argued that repetitive thought may be constructive or counterproductive. The goal processing theory I developed in my Ph.D. thesis (Goal Processing in Autonomous Agents) subsumes two of his attributes of “repetitive thoughts”,  valence and abstraction. My goal processing theory includes a very detailed, nearly comprehensive specification of goals (ch. 3 of my thesis), and a process specification (ch. 4).

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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