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Bio 103, Lab 8, Oneself as a Biological Entity. III. Thinking

Paul Grobstein's picture

In the previous two labs in this series, we've discovered that human behavior takes time, in part because it involves things happening successively in several different parts of an individual, that these happenings can be influenced by a variety of external variables but also to varying degrees by internal ones, and that "thinking" may be a relevant internal variable. We have also, hopefully, become more sophisticated at posing questions, collecting observations relevant to them, and interpreting such observations in relation to questions.

In this lab we want to further build on our experiences by investigating "thinking" itself. Is "thinking" also something that takes time? that can be altered by both external and internal variables? Its an interesting question, first asked explicitly in the late 1800's with a very clever set of observations then requiring elaborate equipment. Today we can make the same observations more easily using computers, as in Serendip's Time to Think exhibit.

The observational set up allows one to measure various kinds of thinking, as well as to test hypotheses about how they are related to one another. Once you get the hang of it, you can/should develop your own hypotheses about what might or might not influence the various kinds of thinking time. And develop your own experiments. Do one as a group in class. And you're free to do additional ones any place you can find a computer.  Some further work might make this a good final lab paper. 

Remember that we've reached a phase where we'd like to have our hypotheses and observations sufficiently in hand so that we can generate interesting and well-supported interpretations that in turn lead on to further questions and observations.

ED's picture

I wanted to test several

I wanted to test several ideas... I wanted to repeat the lab starting with case 3 then 2 then 1 to see if my results in each case got better, some got better, some got worse, or all got worse.

My baseline averages:

Case 1: 232 milliseconds
Case 2: 245 milliseconds
Case 3: 484.5 milliseconds
Case 4: 724.8 milliseconds

In the case of the class, case 4 could be discounted because there was a loophole in the program that made it easy for us to sidestep actually thinking about negating.

When I retested myself I stared with case 3:
Case 3: 510.3
Case 2: 402.2
Case 1: 327
So I was doing worse on each study than I had done before, going from 1 to 3. Then I did Case 4, just for the heck of a "challenge" (which was exciting because I was getting bored...) I got: 579.3. Which is much better than 724.8, which I got the first time.

I wanted to see if I could do better on this case 3 to case 1 test if I did it again after a nice break during which i ate a Nature's Valley granola bar. Results:

Case 3: 459
Case 2: 291
Case 1: 171

I did better on this one than I did on the first "3 to 1" case, and I actually even did better ("better" means less time, by the way) on case 3 and case 1 than I did on my baseline test. A conclusion I can make from this is that boredom and/or distracting hunger made me react more slowly in the first 3-1 case.


Another idea I wanted to explore was just with case 2. I was wondering about anticipation. I started doing it and was doing terribly, and I felt I had to live up to  my baseline standard of 245. The pressure was on, so I started to put the simple directions in my head: "click dark" and that helped a bit. So I was back to being "good" at this-- but then I got about 6 whites in a row, but then I clicked. Then a black came up, and I got 615 milliseconds-- I was way more careful and felt ashamed because I had anticipated the black before... This happened a bunch of times. I'd get on a role with the blacks, getting low times, then there would be a lot of whites... and then I would have a very slow reaction for clicking the black.




sophie b.'s picture



Acting Thinking Reading Negating
Control 336 441 425 575
Watching TV 494 713 900 884
Difference 158 290 475 309


For my experiment I decided to watch TV while I performed the experiment, I kept the experiment in my peripheral vision as I was watching television. My reaction time slowed significantly while I watched TV, probably because I needed to visually concentrate on both things.

I thought it was interesting that the difference between both reading times was significantly larger than the difference between the negating times. I think that perhaps the break to commercial had an effect on my reaction time, as the show that I was watching went to commercial during the negation test, maybe because I was less interested in the TV during commercials, my time went down. 

xhan's picture

thinking, acting, thinking&acting

Initial Data:
Case 1: 323
Case 2: 610
Case 3: 1110
Case 4: 1066
Acting: 323
Thinking: 287
Reading: 490
Negating: -34
= = = = = = =
With Music
Case 1: 300
Case 2: 588
Case 3: 1120
Case 4: 1015

I think listening to music, heightened my awareness so that I was able to react slightly faster than when I did in my previous trials. This might also have to do with the fact, that over time, repetition can help improve the speed at which I react to stimuli.

Yashaswini's picture

Requeim for Response Time? =|

Introduction: Initital hypothesis

To study factors that affect time to act, think, read and negate, I first recorded observations made with no external disturbance or distraction. In the second part of my experiment, I listened to the piano cover of *Requiem for a Dream* on my iPod and while following instructions on the Time to Think exhibit, I imagined myself playing the piece and made a conscious effort to recall finger positionings, dynamics, articulation etc I use while actually physically playing the piece.. My intitial hypothesis was that.. since I was forcing my brain to actively engage in another activity (imagining the physical act of playing the piano as well as the mental re-inforcement of emotions portrayed through the music), time taken to act, think, read and negate should considerably increase. I believed the multi-tasking of the brain would slow down my rate of response to the exhibit.



  Base Trial With music and imagination
Time to act 260 236
Time to think and act 351 304
Time to read, think and act 528 424
Time to read, think, negate and act 509 501

Time taken to respond to the exhibit while listening to music was surprisingly less than time taken in the base trial! This contradicts my initial hypothesis as my brain was performing different tasks, but not at the cost of each other!



The results of my experiment were waaaay different from what I'd anticipated! As response time decreased while listening to music, I feel music actually enhanced alertness and stimulated the brain more. But this confuses me further. Even though the brain does have different regions that perform different functions simultaneously, how does it manage to account for distractions? Perhaps, for a pianist, playing music would not amount to a distraction, but would these results hold true for someone who is not a musician?


cejensen's picture

Processing and a different language?

Claire and Paoli

First, as a class, we recorded our times for all four cases in the "Time to Think" game. The first case we just had to act, in the second, we had to think and act, in the third we had to read, think and act, and finally in the fourth we had to read, negate, think and act. Once we did this, we came up with other experiments we could test our processing times.


Paoli: Case 1 (249), Case 2 (407), Case 3 (515), Case 4 (1,124)

Claire: Case 1 (250), Case 2 (322), Case 3 (507), Case 4 (546)

In our group, we chose to first test by having one member say the commands aloud (Paoli) to the experimentee (Claire), who would press the button while looking away from the screen. In addition, we did the cases in reverse order. We thought that this might speed up the process as it is easier to listen than to look. However, the times were much slower than Claire's previous averages. We believe that this is because two people had to process the information (Paoli had to read, think, and then say it aloud, while Claire had to listen, process, and act).

Claire: (5 Trials)
CASE #4: 1330, 1035, 1754, 1283, 1007 (AVG. 1,281 milliseconds)
CASE #3: 1004, 833, 755, 766, 913 (AVG. 854 milliseconds)
CASE #2: 897, 655, 605, 891, 750 (AVG. 759 milliseconds)
CASE #1: 627, 627, 605, 599, 499 (AVG. 591 milliseconds)

For our second experiment, Paoli called her grandparents and spoke to them in Spanish while going through the experiment in English. We thought that in particular cases 3 and 4 would be affected, as these ask one to read in English, so she would be reading and processing in English while interacting and talking in Spanish. We found that actually her times sped up. We were confused by this, but we believe that when she was multitasking she was focusing more on the individual tasks ("I'm multitasking, I'd better focus!"), whereas previously she may not have been thinking about the need to focus as she was only doing one thing. She also noted that she is used to multitasking when talking to people on the phone (like going on the computer, checking email).

Paoli: (5 Trials)
CASE #1: 481, 453, 311, 377, 313 (AVG. 387 milliseconds)
CASE #2: 310, 322, 408, 465, 486 (AVG. 398 milliseconds)
CASE #3: 561, 510, 484, 577, 475 (AVG. 521 milliseconds)
CASE #4: 537, 498, 569, 682, 336 (AVG. 524 milliseconds)


We believe that the process is slowed down when two people are involved as they both have to process separately. However, based on our data, multitasking may actually increase one's focus on the individual tasks.

jingber's picture

Phone Conversation and Reaction Time

                                        Act         Think, Act       Read, Think, Act      Read, Think-Negate, Act
Control                        215, 10        247, 10             343, 48                       369, 83
Talking to my mom      233, 16        318, 50            457, 118                      460, 90
Change in milliseconds    18               71                     114                            91              (Times in milliseconds, followed by SD)
I tested if talking to my mother would change the reaction times.  The data shows a time increase for all four experimental set-ups, but to varying degrees.  There was little change in just acting, a larger change when thinking and acting, and even larger changes in the last two set-ups.  This may illustrate the way in which a conversation affects various mental processes.  Language production and comprehension are two of the more complex processes of the mind, so more advanced activities would not get the attention they need for rapid response.  Reading is the hardest to do while talking, because it involves another form of language comprehension (and a less natural one, as writing systems are artificially created, unlike spoken language.)
However, the extent to which a phone conversation plays a factor in speed of thinking and reading comprehension may be overstated by the experiment.  The much larger standard devisions mask the data in two ways.  First, a large standard deviation means the data is less precise, so the "true" mean may lie within a larger range.  Secondly, the incrase in standard deviation may be the result of factors that do not relate to thinking speed or reading comprehension.  Talking on the phone decreases the amount of focus on doing the experiment itself, so the subject may be more likely to simply miss the cue when conversing.  This could result in several reaction times being much longer than others.  For the purposes of the experiment, they would be outliers that should not be counted (but were, due to the nature of the set-up) because they are highlighting a change in a confounding variable.  Thus, while there is definitely an increase in reaction time, the extent to which reading comprehension, thinking, and acting were slowed down is unclear.

drichard's picture

For our experiment, we chose

For our experiment, we chose to look at the affect talking, or having a conversation with someone, would affect our reaction and thinking rates on Serendip. Specifically, we called our mothers on the phone. Not only can you not ignore your mom, but we also had to deal with the physical distraction of holding the phone. The first trial was without distraction, the second trail occurred while talking on the phone, and then we recorded a third trial to confirm our results. The trials go in this order: Act, Think and React, Read Think and React, and Read Think Negate and React. We recorded the following data:

Initial Trial:

David: 237, 261, 551, 495

Julia: 253, 328, 638, 526

Talking with Mom:

David: 448, 348, 574, 540

Julia: 380, 382, 525, 517

Follow-up Trial:

David: 250, 336, 489, 387

Julia: 242, 323, 506, 436

The overall trend of this data indicates that while we were having a conversation with our mothers, our reaction time increased greatly, and our first two trials were much slower. However, our thinking time over the trials did not increase proportionally. This leads us to theorize that the brain is able to multi-task mentally, but not mentally-physically. In other words, the brain can think multiple thoughts, but as soon as it needs to manifest any of those thoughts physically, the brain needs to focus on that thought and its corresponding physical action. Thus, the reaction time will increase.

Kalyn's picture

Thinking Lab


Karina Granadeno
Kalyn Schofield
Person #1                                                                                                                            Person#2
1.       225                                                                                                         1. 279
2.       223                                                                                                         2. 270
3.       346                                                                                                         3. 266
Average: 264 milliseconds                                    Average: 271 milliseconds
Standard Deviation: 58 milliseconds                 Standard Deviation: 6 milliseconds
Thinking Time: 91                                                     Thinking Time: 83
Person #1                                                                                                                            Person #2
1. 431                                                                                                                    1. 275
2. 311                                                                                                                    2. 491
3. 325                                                                                                                    3. 297
Average: 355 milliseconds                                            Average: 354 milliseconds
Standard Deviation: 54 milliseconds                         Standard Deviation: 98 milliseconds
Reading Time:   342                                                         Reading Time: 252
Person #1                                                                                                                            Person #2
1. 733                                                                                                                    1.  441
2. 629                                                                                                                    2. 584
3. 730                                                                                                                    3. 794
Average: 697 milliseconds                                                                            Average: 606 milliseconds
Standard Deviation: 49 milliseconds                                                         Standard Deviation: 145 milliseconds
Negating: -144                                                                                   Negate: 891
Person #1                                                                                                            Person #2
1. 657                                                                                                                    1. 1230
2. 558                                                                                                                   2. 1030
3. 446                                                                                                                    3. 2233
Average: 553 milliseconds                                                                            Average: 1497 milliseconds
Standard Deviation: 87 milliseconds                                                         Standard Deviation: 527 milliseconds
Teacher’s Numbers:
Person #1                                                            Person #2
Acting: 264                                                          Acting: 271                         
Thinking: 91                                                        Thinking: 83
Reading: 342                                                      Reading: 252
Negating: -144                                                   Negating: -606
HYPOTHESIS: To test the idea that people reach an optimum level of efficiency even when a distraction is present. We think that constantly being exposed to a distraction will at some point stop significantly affect the reaction times.
CASE #1 [ACTING]                                                                                                           CASE#2 [THINKING & ACTING]
Person #1                                                                                                                            Person #2
1. 321                                                                                                                                    1. 505
2. 217                                                                                                                                    2. 393
3. 234                                                                                                                                    3. 305
4. 441                                                                                                                                    4. 341
5. 334                                                                                                                                    5. 435
6. 654                                                                                                                                    6. 318
7. 338                                                                                                                                    7. 307
8. 368                                                                                                                                    8. 312
9. 373                                                                                                                                    9. 362
10. 329                                                                                                                                  10. 293
Average: 360 milliseconds                                                            Average: 357 milliseconds
Standard Deviation: 116 milliseconds                                      Standard Deviation: 66 milliseconds
Person #1                                                                                                           
ACTING (without distraction): Avg: 264
ACTING (with distraction): Avg: 360
Person #2
THINKING & ACTING (without distraction): Avg: 354
THINKING & ACTING (with distraction): Avg: 357
CASE #3 [READING, THINKING & ACTING]                                                            CASE#4 [THINK-NEGATE]
Person #1                                                                                                                            Person #2
1. 487                                                                                                                                    1. 903
2. 598                                                                                                                                    2. 1143
3. 800                                                                                                                                    3. 1745
4. 719                                                                                                                                    4. 972
5. 550                                                                                                                                    5. 842
Average: 630 milliseconds                                                            Average: 1121 milliseconds
Standard Deviation: 114 milliseconds                                      Standard Deviation: 328 milliseconds
Person #1                                                                                                           
READING THINKING ACTING (without distraction): Avg: 697 milliseconds
READING THINKING ACTING (with distraction): Avg: 630 milliseconds
Person #2
THINK-NEGATE  (without distraction): Avg: 1497
THINK-NEGATE (with distraction): Avg: 1121
Conclusions: For this experiment we wanted to test the idea that people reach an optimum level of efficiency (average reaction time ) even when a distraction is present. We thought that consistently being exposed to a distraction will at some point stop a person’s significant change in their reaction times. For our distraction we used hand motions in front of the computer screen and compared it to our original experiment data from when we first took the tests. Our experiments have shown us that there isn’t one way to consistently distract a person since our times varied for every trail. However, our average reaction time consistently became slower with distractions compared to our original non-distracter data we also noticed that each of our standard deviation range for each experiment was always different for each person. This meant that each person did have their own individual average level of proficiency that fluctuated according to the experiment. From our data we have drawn conclusions that it’s possible for the brain to adapt and reason out distractions which causing some people to react faster or slower depending on the given distraction at the time. It also varies according to the task, for example, hand motions affect your reaction time just like avoiding the many distractions present when driving. This would make sense since all distractions don’t carry the same severity. In life there are many distractions both great and small which can and do affect the reaction times of people.


achiles's picture

Time to think?

In this experiment, we attempted to explore Donders’ question: “Is thinking a material process?” through determining the time it takes for one to think, read, and negate a statement. In order to carry out the experiment, we used the Serendip applet “Time to Think,” which records the time in milliseconds that it takes the subject to react, react + think, react + think + read, and react + read + negate +think. The following table represents the average times (in milliseconds) that each of our 2 subjects took to perform each task.


Average Time (milliseconds)

Standard Deviation

Isolated “Variables”

1: Reaction







2: Reaction + Thinking







3: Reaction+Thinking+Reading







4: Reaction + Thinking + Reading + Negating







Our findings suggest that
After performing the first phase of the experiment, we asked the question: “How will talking on a cell phone change the respective time measurements?” In order to explore our question, we carried on a lengthy phone conversation with each other while one reenacted the case tests. We hypothesize that talking on a cell phone will slow the reaction, reading, and negating times as well as the average times for each case. Below is a table representing our findings and the differences between the independent (1st) trial and the affected (2nd) trial.


Average Time

Standard Deviation

Isolated “Variables”

Difference from trial 1a avg

Difference from trial 1a isolated variables

1: Reaction






2: Reaction + Thinking






3: Reaction+Thinking+Reading






4: Reaction + Thinking + Reading + Negating






As the tables above would suggest, talking on a cell phone had an overall significant effect on both average and isolated variable measurements.
Why is this important? This simulation is remarkably similar to the experience of driving and talking on a cell phone. When driving, one has to react to pedestrians and other cars and read/interpret traffic signs and stop lights. The changes from table 1 to table 2, which represent the slowed reaction, reading, and interpreting times while talking on a cell phone, suggest that talking on a cell phone while driving reduces reacting, reading, and interpreting skills and is obviously dangerous.
-Anna and Lili

Terrible2s's picture

Music, thinking, reading, and reacting

In our experiment we tested the effects of listening to music on reacting, thinking, reading, and reading-negating. We did a preliminary experiment, and collected the results for the average time it took us to react, think, read, and read-negate. Next we listened to a Youtube clip of 20 heavy metal bands while doing our trial ( We then did the experiment with no music once again, then with music again. We then took all four trials of data and analyzed our results.

For Terrible2s:

Their results all ended up being similar, showing no significant changes between trials.

For HM:

 There does exist a minute difference between the non-music/music results.  I have appeared to have been faster without music. 

For DC:

Time to Act, Time to Read, and Time to Negate consistently went down when I was listening to music. However, Time to Think consistently went up.

Results may have varied due to subjects becoming used to the trials, subjects becoming tired, or other similar factors.

mfmiranda's picture

Lab 8

Our data for this lab was a little different than we thought it would be. Although the times did increase when we had to think about the different shades of the boxes, and when we had to read the instructions, for one of us the times were lower when we had to to do the trial with negation. We were definitely not expecting that to happen, and we're unsure as to why doing the opposite seemed to come easier to one of us than following instructions.


For our second set of trials, we chose to add a distraction to the experiment. Instead of doing these silently, we thought the results would change if the other person talked to the one doing the experiment. This didn't present very much of a difference, but when we decided to fully engage in a conversation, the difference was much more apparent. We chose a conversation as opposed to listening to music, because we figured that the subject would eventually become accustomed to the music, but would always need to react in order to continue the conversation.


In order to make sure that our results in the second set of trials were not just a fluke or a result of us growing more comfortable with the experiment, we did another set of trials that were exactly like the first. Although these times were a little different than the ones with which we started, they were still completely different than when we were being distracted by the conversation.


In the end our results were what we expected. The conversation made it more difficult to react accurately to what was going on. It was more difficult to press the button, and pay attention to the directions if we were also trying to concentrate on other things. It was already difficult enough to pay attention to the directions on their own, but when we were talking we would sometimes look away from the computer screen or completely forget that we were supposed to be waiting for instructions and we'd either click at the wrong time or just click way too late.


mfmiranda, jpierre