Mixing Memory

Have you ever had a meeting, or a brain storming session, that involved a lot of coffee and enthusiasm, with everyone throwing out ideas at a breakneck pace, and quickly becoming convinced of their brilliance? I had just such a meeting one morning not too long ago. Everything moved really, really fast, and we were convinced that we’d hit upon a really good idea. Later that evening, everything about the idea that we’d come up with began to fall apart. The next morning, I woke up to an email from one of the meeting’s participants with the subject heading, “Maybe this is why we thought it was such a good idea.” The email had no text, only an attached paper by Emily Pronin and Dan Wegner titled “Manic Thinking: Independent Effects of Thought Speed and Thought Content on Mood”1.

Pronin and Wegner note that the psychiatric illness, mania, is associated with both increased thought speed and elevated mood, along with delusions of grandeur, and the feeling of heightened creativity and inspiration. However, the effect of thought speed has not been studied independent of clinical mania. To explore this relationship, they had college undergrads read out loud a series of emotion-inducing statements (58 in all) in at either a fast or slow pace. The statements, which have been used to manipulate mood for a few decades, start out emotionally neutral, and then become more and more emotionally positive or more and more emotionally negative. The idea is that reading a series of progressively more positive or negative statements will affect the reader’s mood accordingly. The letters in the statements were presented one at a time, either for 40ms per letter (fast thinking condition) or 170 ms per letter (slow thinking). A pilot study indicated that the 40ms per letter reading time was about twice the normal reading speed for college undergrads, with 170 ms being about half the normal speed. The time between statements also varied, with only 320 ms between statements in the fast condition, and 4 seconds between statements in the slow condition.

After reading all 58 statements, participants were asked to answer a series of questions designed to assess their mood, energy level, feelings of power, creativity and inspiration, and “grandiosity or inflated self-esteem,” along with their own perceptions of their speed of thought. Not surprisingly (and confirming that the manipulation was working), participants in the fast thought condition reported faster thought speeds than those in the slower condition. Consistent with the hypothesis that faster thought speeds affected mood and mania-related feelings, participants in the fast thought condition reported being happier, had higher energy levels, experienced greater senses of power and creativity, and higher levels of grandiosity (though self-esteem did not differ between conditions). Furthermore, these effects were independent of the mood manipulation (positive or negative statements). Here is Pronin and Wegner’s graph presenting the effects of slow and fast thinking as a function of the type of sentence (positive or negative; from their Figure 1, p. 810):


So there you have it. Thinking fast produces effects on mood and self-view similar to those of clinical mania. Of course, nothing in these results says that thinking faster doesn’t actually lead to more creativity and inspiration, but my colleague was probably right: the fact that we’d been thinking so fast during our meeting likely had something to do with the fact that we thought what turned out to be a bad idea was so good. I wonder how much of a role coffee played in this. While I don’t know of any research on the effect of caffeine on the speed of thought, it is a stimulant, and the fact that we were drinking it in large amounts (the meeting took place at a local coffee house) couldn’t have helped. The implications are clear, then. It’s important, when you’re dealing with something important, to slow down now and then (and cut off the supply of coffee) in order to be able to objectively evaluate the ideas your producing. Otherwise, you might end up like we did, with hours of work that produce only bad ideas.

1Pronin, E., & Wegner, D. M. (2006). Manic thinking: Independent effects of thought speed and thought content on mood. Psychological Science, 17(9), 807-813.


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    February 6, 2007

    Most interesting. This would tend to support the common group technique of separating so-called “brainstorming” from “sober second thought.”

    A small specific example is a technique that has helped me on a number of occasions – if you’ve just quickly drafted an e-mail that seems to be significant (either positively or negatively), don’t send it immediately. Look at it again tomorrow morning … it’s amazing how much editing you might want to do …

  2. #2 CA
    February 6, 2007

    That fits with the clinical impression that people who are speeding (pharmaceutically) tend to overestimate their effectiveness/ability. Rapid thought theirin leads to grandiosity and incorrect conclusions.

  3. #3 ej00807
    February 6, 2007

    Well coffee is known to actually both speedup and slow down certain aspects of brain function. How this affects the thinking process remains open for debate. However, it clearly does elevate mood and produce euphoric like feelings. Especially among those whom are not used to its effects.

    This was a really interesting article. Reading this, I recall the same patterns in my own business meetings. A lot of fast talk, good feelings, seemingly great ideas and the inevitable let-down that occurs often just a few hours after the meeting.

    Maybe this is how the fast talkers affiliated with employee self-improvement programs manage to sell a seemingly endless supply of quite useless seminars to corporate boardrooms.

  4. #4 Alethea
    February 7, 2007

    That was a fascinating post (and I’d never have gone to read the article, so thanks). It echoes my experience also – and I agree with your coffee correlate. In the morning, when I take one and then talk with the individual lab members, I’ve acquired quite a reputation for energy and optimism whereas by late afternoon, I’ve reached a more moderate cruising speed and we can actually go over problems rather than projects.

  5. #5 Cotton Seed
    February 7, 2007

    It would have been nice if you’d linked to the article, which can be found here. (A pet peeve of mine.)

  6. #6 Chris
    February 7, 2007

    Hi Cotton, thanks for linking the article. I probably should have linked it. By the way, the link you gave requires a subscription to read the article, but you can read it here without one.

  7. #7 Fido the Yak
    February 7, 2007

    I recently had my doctor lower my dose of geodon because I was thinking too slow. The speed of thinking is the best measure I have of how I’m doing, so I think Pronin and Wegner are on to something. I wonder though, if thinking were less important to me, would manic-depression feel more like a mood disorder than a thought disorder? So I wonder if there isn’t a sample bias here in using Princeton undergrads.

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