Descriptive Experience Sampling Codebook
Manual of Terminology

Russell T. Hurlburt and Christopher L. Heavey
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

May 10, 2006
Copyright 2006 Russell T. Hurlburt, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.

Descriptive Experience Sampling is a method of exploring inner experience that seeks simply to describe inner experience, based on the view that careful descriptions should be the foundation stones on which subsequent quantification should rest. A complete description of the method is provided in Hurlburt's 1990 book Sampling Normal and Schizophrenic Inner Experience.

The method is summarized in Hurlburt's 1993 book Sampling Inner Experience in Disturbed Affect. Hurlburt and Chris Heavey's 2006 book Exploring Inner Experience describes in detail how to do the method. The subject carries a small beeper that beeps at random intervals. The subject's task is to "freeze" her ongoing experience and to write a brief description of it in a notebook. We are not particularly interested in any explanation of the thoughts or other experiences; we simply wish her to describe that particular inner experience as it naturally occurred. After she has collected six or eight samples, the subject meets with us for an extended conversation about those samples. This sample and discussion process is then repeated the next day, and is repeated again until we think we have obtained an adequate number of samples. At the conclusion of the sampling period, we identify the salient characteristics of the complete set of samples.

Prospective subjects for this procedure frequently attempt an informal version of the procedure in anticipation of their participation, asking themselves on occasion, for example, "What am I thinking right now?" Such informal attempts are nearly always discouraging, leading the typical subject to believe, prior to sampling, that he or she will be unable to perform the sampling task. However, we have found that most subjects find the actual sampling task to be quite easy and unambiguous.

Because it is primarily descriptive, the method is fundamentally idiographic -- that is, it describes unique characteristics of particular individuals. However, some phenomena turn out to be identical or at least very similar between individuals, so it makes sense to use the same terminology in such cases. This manual provides the means for identifying the following characteristics:

Inner Speech

Pure phenomenon: Inner speech is the experience of speaking words in the person's own voice, with the same vocal characteristics (timbre; rate; inflection for commas, question marks, etc.; pauses; accents; stutters; etc.) as the person's own external speech, but with no external (real) noise. In its pure form, the experience of inner speech is identical to that of external speech except that the mouth does not move and no external production of sound is produced.

Example: "I was saying to myself, 'That is a very strong smell -- maybe it is a gas leak!' It was just as if I had said this aloud, but no noise was actually made and my mouth and throat were not actually moving."

Variants: Most often speech (both inner and external) is experienced as being under the direct, active control and guidance of the person. However, occasionally the speech is experienced as being heard, rather passively. As long as such inner phenomenon has the basically same characteristics as outer speech (active or passive), it is referred to as inner speech (happening)

Discriminations: Considerations: People often describe an inner experience with words such as "I was saying to myself...." That does not necessarily imply inner speech. "I was saying to myself..." often refers to unsymbolized thinking or images or other inner phenomenon. One must probe to find out exactly what the person meant to convey by those words. If there is no awareness of the actual concrete experience of speaking exact words, then the phenomenon is not inner speech. Sometimes the exact words are forgotten, but that does not rule out inner speech. If the person is confident that there were exact words being spoken, and if he or she had taken the time to write them down just after the moment of the beep they would be remembered, then the phenomenon is properly inner speech.

Partially Worded Speech

Pure phenomenon: Partially worded speech is the experience of speaking in one's own inner voice, except that some substantial number of the words that are being spoken are absent from awareness. Thus the person has the sense of speaking, and is directly aware of the vocal characteristics of that speaking: rate, inflection, timbre, rhythm, and so on. Furthermore, many of the words that are being spoken are present directly to awareness, precisely as in inner speech. However, some of the words are absent from the stream of speech. Space is "reserved" for these words, as if the words will be added at some later time.

Example: "I was saying to myself, 'That is a very _____ _____ -- maybe __ __ __ ____ ____!' The rhythm of this whole sentence was there, and the meaning was there, but the words were not all present. I knew the first part was about the 'strong smell,' and two equal spaces were being reserved in the rhythm of presentation, but the words "strong" and "smell" were not actually present in my awareness. I knew the meaning of the second part, that 'maybe it is a gas leak', but while that meaning were present in my awareness, the words themselves (other than "maybe" were not. The rhythm of the sentence had three short and two long 'slots' waiting for the words to appear."

Variants: The precise number of missing words can vary dramatically.

Discriminations: Considerations: Novice samplers usually overlook this phenomenon, and there is little to be done about it. It takes practice to be directly aware of what was actually happening at the moment of the beep, and novices usually do not make a crystal clear distinction between what they actually said in inner speech and what knew they meant to say. A "hole" is often described as "I knew the word was coming, but it wasn't here yet," or "There was a space left for the word -- the space had two syllables, but I don't know what the word was." The word often does in fact appear soon after the beep. Often the word is exactly what the person expected (the same number of syllables and general "feel," for example), but occasionally the actual word is quite different. Some experienced samplers report that careful observation of inner speech is that there are two separate but coordinated processes, one that provides the rhythm and inflection and another that "drops in" the words at the appropriate slots.

Unworded Speech

Pure phenomenon: Unworded speech is the experience of speaking in one's own inner voice, except that there is no experience of the words themselves. Thus the person has the sense of speaking, and is directly aware of the vocal characteristics of that speaking: rate, inflection, timbre, rhythm, and so on.

Example: "I was saying to myself that there was a very strong smell, maybe there was a gas leak I had the clear sense that I was speaking the words of this sentence -- there was something of a rhythm and a sequence to this implied utterance. But the words were not present. I knew the that I was speaking, and I knew what I was saying, but the words were not there."


Discriminations: Considerations:

Worded Thinking

Pure phenomenon: Worded thinking is the experience of thinking in particular distinct words, but those words are not being (innerly or externally) spoken, heard, seen, or voiced in any other way.

Example: "I was thinking, 'I should give him the letter.' Those exact words were somehow present in my awareness, but I can't tell you how. They were not spoken, and I did not see them. But somehow they were there, one after the other."

Variants: Sometimes but not always the phenomenon will include a hint of visual experience.

Discriminations: Considerations:


Pure phenomenon: An image is the experience of seeing something that is known to be not actually present. In its pure form seeing an image has the same characteristics as seeing an external object: the center is in clearer focus, the focus or attention becomes less clear at the periphery; there is no distinct border or edge to the experience, and so on.

Example: "I saw an image of a used car lot. It was as if I were across the street, and maybe 10 feet above the sidewalk. I could see the cars, and a bunch of colorful pennants displayed around the lot. There was a guy in a gray suit standing next to the green car."

Variants: Images can be experienced in color or black and white, in motion or still, in focus or out, may or may not be accompanied by sounds. Occasionally the content of an image is a word, seen as if printed or typed or hand written. Such a phenomenon is still called an image (of words). Occasionally not all the details of an image are actually seen, but are instead simply known to be a part of the image. For example, "I was seeing bottles of body lotion arranged on a department store shelf. I see a few individual bottles, and to their left a swath of pink that I know are the bottles of another brand of body lotion, but I don't really see the individual bottles -- I just know that they are there. To the right, I see a swatch of light green that I know is a different particular brand, but again I don't see these particular bottles." Such an inner seeing is referred to as an image (not fully realized).

Discriminations: Considerations:

People often describe an inner experience with words such as "I was thinking...." Such a phrase conveys little information, and may refer to inner speech, images, unsymbolized thinking, or any other phenomenon. It is our impression that the phrase "I was thinking..." usually describes the most frequent kind of inner experience that an individual person has.

The category image (not fully realized) is to image as partially unworded speech is to inner speech. The reason that we do not create an entirely separate not fully realized category is that very many, perhaps most, images are not fully realized if you probe hard enough, which makes a clear distinction between images and images (not fully realized) relatively difficult.

Imageless Seeing

Pure phenomenon: Imageless seeing is the experience of seeing (of looking at, of visually apprehending) in inner experience, except that the thing seen (usually called the image) is not itself directly in awareness.

Example: "I was seeing an image of my brother who is depressed. But I really didn't see him at all. I was definitely looking at him, as if he were standing about ten feet in front of me, but I didn't actually see his features or what he was wearing, etc. I knew he was hunched over a little, and I knew his expression was sad, but I didn't really see those aspects. I know this seems weird, but it was definitely a visual phenomenon. I was seeing him, but at the same time I didn't see him at all."


Discriminations: Considerations: It is often difficult to tease apart the unsymbolized knowing of a visual characteristic and the imageless seeing of that characteristic. When a person, particularly one who is not yet convinced of the existence of unsymbolized thinking, says he "has an image of his living room," you should be careful to make sure you ask about the characteristics of this "image," not about the characteristics of the living room itself. A good first question is "Tell me more about this image."

If a person has a true image, it is usually very easy to report the visual details of the imaged object (color, perspective, exactly what is and is not seen, etc.). If the person cannot do this (and the reason is not merely simple forgetting of the details), then you must suspect unsymbolized thinking or imageless seeing. If the person does have the clear experience of seeing, even though the thing seen is not there, then the phenomenon is imageless seeing.

Unsymbolized Thinking

Pure phenomenon: Unsymbolized thinking is the experience of thinking some particular, definite thought without the awareness of that thought's being represented in words, images, or any other symbols.

Example: "I was wondering whether the men would drop the load of bricks. This was clearly a cognitive or mental process -- I was mentally wondering -- and this cognitive process was separate from the actual process of seeing."

Variants: The person may use phrases such as "I was wondering whether..."; "I was trying to figure out..."; and so on.

Discriminations: Considerations: Many people do not believe in the possibility of unsymbolized thinking even if they themselves engage in it frequently. Therefore there is a typical sequence that many people go through on successive samples. At first they report that "I was saying to myself...," but then cannot describe the words or any vocal features of the sentence being said. This inability is often distressing to the person. People often feel inadequate, anxious, or unfit as participants in the sampling study. Reassurance is often necessary, for example, "It's OK to have a thought but not to be able to describe it -- perhaps we will be better able at a subsequent sample. But perhaps we won't get any better -- that would be OK too." Eventually most people who experience this phenomenon frequently will become confident that they were in fact thinking something but there were no words or images or other symbols.

Inner Hearing

Pure phenomenon: Inner hearing is the paying attention to the auditory characteristics of an inner phenomenon.

Example: "I was hearing the Beatles 'Penny Lane' playing in my head. It was just like hearing it on the radio, as far as I could tell."

Variants: The inner phenomenon may or may not be verbal.

Discriminations: Considerations:


Pure phenomenon: A feeling is an emotional experience, including sadness, happiness, humor, anxiety, joy, fear, nervousness, anger, embarrassment, and so on.

Variants: Feelings are generally localized in the body, but may be experienced as mental events or as combinations of mental and bodily events. Sometimes the features of feelings cannot be described at all, for example, "I was angry, and it was clear I was angry, but I can't tell you how I experienced that. I was angry, that's all."

Discriminations: Considerations: A feeling (in awareness) is present in awareness at the moment of the beep (e.g. "I was feeling tense and distressed."). A feeling (brought into awareness by the beep) is present in the body but not in awareness at the moment of the beep and brought into awareness by the beep (e.g. "I was tense and distressed, but I wasn't really aware of that at the moment of the beep. My muscles were clearly tense at the moment of the beep, but my awareness of that tension was not present until, in response to the beep, I 'took stock' of what was going on with me.").

Sensory Awareness

Pure phenomenon: A sensory awareness is a sensory or perceptual experience (itch, hotness, pressure, visual taking-in, hearing) that is itself a primary theme or focus for the subject. Such a sensory awareness may be bodily (itch, tingle, pain, pressure, hotness, coldness, shiver, stiffness, etc.) or external (noting the color of a flower, smelling gasoline, taking in the characteristics of a sunrise, hearing the scratching of the cat at the door, etc.).

Examples: Variants:

Discriminations: Considerations: The question of emotional significance is decided on the basis of the person's direct experience, not the examiner's inference. For example, a heart palpitation may be a part of a feeling (e.g. "I was scared and I could feel my heart palpitating."); or it may be a sensory (bodily) awareness (e.g. "I was noticing a strange palpitation in my heart."). The examiner should not infer emotional characteristics that are not part of the person's experience. For example, just because the examiner associates heart palpitations with anxiety does not mean that the person's heart palpitations are part of an anxiety feeling.

For the event to be scored as a sensory awareness, the sensation or perception must be being paid attention to in some thematic way. For example, if at the moment of the beep there is traffic noise, and the person can hear it but is not really paying attention to it, then that hearing is not a sensory awareness.

Just Doing

Pure phenomenon: Just doing is being engaged in some activity but with no awareness of thinking about it. Furthermore, no other aspect of inner experience is in awareness.

Examples: Variants:

These are not examples of just doing:

Just Talking

Pure phenomenon: Just talking is talking aloud but has no other aspect of inner experience being simultaneously present.

Examples: Variants:

Discriminations: If some other aspect(s) of inner experience is(are) simultaneously present -- images, feelings, and so on -- then that aspect is scored and just talking is not scored.
These are not examples of just talking: Considerations:

Just Listening

Pure phenomenon: Just listening is hearing another person talking aloud, and comprehending what that person is saying without any other aspect of inner experience being simultaneously present.

Examples: Variants:

Discriminations: If some other aspect(s) of inner experience is(are) simultaneously present -- images, feelings, and so on -- then that aspect is scored and just listening is not scored. These are not examples of just listening: Considerations:

Just Reading

Pure phenomenon: Just reading is reading and comprehending what is being read without any other aspect of inner experience being simultaneously present

Example: "I was reading my textbook about the concept of gravity -- just understanding what was being described. I was not really thinking about anything else."

Variants: The reading material can be a book, newspaper, computer screen, magazine, billboard, product label, etc.

Discriminations: If some other aspect(s) of inner experience is(are) simultaneously present -- images, feelings, and so on -- then that aspect is scored and just reading is not scored. These are not examples of just reading: Considerations:

Just Watching TV (or Movie or Play)

Pure phenomenon: Just watching TV (or movie or play) is watching a representational medium and being absorbed in the action without any other aspect of inner experience being simultaneously present.

Example: "I was watching Seinfeld on TV -- I was absorbed in the action. I was not really thinking about anything else."

Variants: The representational medium may be a TV program, movie in a theater, or play, or any other medium that represents something other than itself. Thus a basketball game on TV is included, but a live basketball game is not included; a concert video is included but a live concert is not included.

Discriminations: If some other aspect(s) of inner experience is(are) simultaneously present -- images, feelings, and so on -- then that aspect is scored and just watching TV is not scored. These are not examples of just watching TV: Considerations:

Multiple awareness

Pure phenomenon: Multiple awareness is two or more separate, mostly unrelated processes ongoing simultaneously.

Examples: Variants: Separate, distinct images are considered multiple awareness even if they relate to the same topic.

Discriminations: These examples are not considered to be multiple awareness: Considerations: Aspects of inner experience that occur one after another are not considered multiple awareness, regardless of how quickly they occur. However, if the aspects are experienced to overlap (one remaining in awareness while the next one begins), then the experience is considered multiple.