What are Ruminations?

A rumination is a train thought, unproductive and prolonged, on a particular topic or theme.

The term obsessional rumination is often used by some authors and clinicians to refer to all obsessional thoughts Opens in new window, but this is misleading.

An example of a rumination is as follows:

A young man had complicated and time-consuming rumination on the question: ‘Is everyone basically good?’ He could ruminate on this for a long time, going over in his mind various considerations and arguments and contemplating what superficially appeared to him to be relevant evidence.

How does a rumination differ from an obsession?

Unlike obsessions, Opens in new window ruminations do not intrude into the patient’s consciousness, in a well-defined form, or with a clearly circumscribed content. Clinically, it appears that ruminations are mental compulsive behavior, usually preceded by an obsession.

For example, the obsession “Am I going mad?” may lead to the compulsive urge to think through the subject, which in turn leads to a muddled attempt at thinking about it; this is the rumination.

Ruminations are different from other mental compulsions Opens in new window in that the latter consist of specific mental acts, such as saying something silently or visualizing something in a particular way.

Ruminations are not such well-defined events; the theme or topic of a rumination is specific, but what goes into the thinking about the topic is open-ended and variable.

Many ruminations of obsessive-compulsive patients Opens in new window tend to concern religious, philosophical, or metaphysical subjects such as the origins of the universe, life after death, the nature of morality, and so on.

One young man reported extensive ruminations about what would happen to him after death. He would weigh up the various theoretical possibilities, visualize scenes of heaven, hell, and other worlds, try to remember what philosophers and scientists have said about death, and so on. There was never a satisfying end-point. A cycle of rumination, he reported, would take well over an hour.

The case of a young man, a student who had mathematical ruminations, has been described recently by Drs Idit Albert and Peter Hayward of the University of London.

While studying or listening to lectures in class, he would get the thought that he was not understanding the subject adequately. This would then lead to thoughts such as, “What is the difference between a vector and a point in space?” He would then ruminate on these questions. This had the effect of making his studying time much longer.

These ruminations also left him feeling low. Drs Albert and Hayward have characterized this young man’s difficulty as feeling compelled to worry about problems that he knew he could never resolve.

    The research data for this work have been adapted from:
  1. Obsessive-compulsive Disorder: The Facts By Padmal De Silva, Stanley Rachman