A Wandering Mind

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Have you ever tried meditating and found it difficult to focus? Or wondered why your attention just slips in class, or why you keep thinking about a particular topic repeatedly?

Well, new research led by UC Berkeley has come up with a way to track the flow of our internal thought processes and signal whether our minds are focused, fixated, or wandering. By using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain activity during mundane attention tasks, researchers were able to identify brain signals that reveal when the mind is not focused on the current task or aimlessly wandering, especially after concentrating on an assignment.

The study consisted of participants wearing electrodes and completing a computer screen task. After the task they were asked to rate on a scale of one to seven whether their thoughts during the task had been: 1) related to the task, 2) freely moving, 3) deliberately constrained, or 4) automatically constrained.

The EEG detected increased alpha brain waves in the prefrontal cortex in more than 24 participants when their thoughts shifted from one topic to another. This increase suggests that when we jump from one thing to another and stop concentrating on a task and simply try and unwind, our brain enters a state of wakeful rest (wandering). Meanwhile, weaker brain signals known as P3 were observed in the parietal cortex, which offers a brain marker for when people are not paying attention to the task at hand.

Kiwi Learning. Smile and Wave. (2019).

These findings suggest that tuning out our external environment and allowing our internal thoughts to move freely and creatively are a necessary function of the brain and can promote relaxation and exploration. Furthermore, this new neurophysiological evidence that distinguishes different patterns of internal thought can help future clinicians detect certain patterns of thinking, even before patients are aware of where their minds are wandering.

Researchers have said that this could help detect thought patterns linked to a spectrum of psychiatric and attention disorders and may even help diagnose them. Other researchers have said that if we were to focus all the time on our goals, we can miss important information. Having a free-association thought process that randomly generates memories and imaginative experiences can lead us to new ideas and insights. To put it into context, if you have ever had an exam and found yourself pondering about a grade you received on an assignment, then realized you have prepared dinner, but also that you have not to exercise yet, but also at the same time you remember the last time you were on vacation. These are freely moving thoughts unrelated to the task of studying for your exam. Moreover, jumping from thought to thought is what increases our alpha waves, putting our mind in the state of awake relaxation and increase creativity.

So next time you find yourself struggling to keep on task, just remember that jumping from thought to thought helps us reset, and can lead us to new ideas and insights when we would otherwise miss them if we were only focused on the task at hand.

Source: “Distinct electrophysiological signatures of task-unrelated and dynamic thoughts” by Julia W. Y. Kam, Zachary C. Irving, Caitlin Mills, Shawn Patel, Alison Gopnik, and Robert T. Knight. PNAS

Link Source: https://www.pnas.org/content/118/4/e2011796118

Featured photo: by Ithalu Domingues, Pexels.

Edited by Cyrus Rohani-Shukla

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