Researchers have found a way to track what your mind is doing when thoughts begin to wander.
Using electroencephalograms (EEG) to measure brain activity while more than two dozen study participants did mundane attention tasks, the researchers identified brain signals associated with a daydreaming mind.
They found that the participants had increased alpha brain waves in the prefrontal cortex when their thoughts skipped from one topic to another. Alpha waves are slow brain rhythms with frequency ranging from 9 to 14 cycles per second.
The findings provide an electrophysiological signature for free, spontaneous thought, according to the researchers.
They also found that the participants had weaker brain signals known as P3 in the parietal cortex when they weren’t paying attention to the task at hand. The study was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“For the first time, we have neurophysiological evidence that distinguishes different patterns of internal thought, allowing us to understand the varieties of thought central to human cognition and to compare between healthy and disordered thinking,” study senior author Robert Knight, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a university news release.
The findings suggest that tuning out the outside world and letting your thoughts flow freely and creatively are necessary to promote mind relaxation and exploration, according to the researchers.
“If you focus all the time on your goals, you can miss important information. And so, having a free-association thought process that randomly generates memories and imaginative experiences can lead you to new ideas and insights,” said study co-author Zachary Irving, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia.
“Babies and young children’s minds seem to wander constantly, and so we wondered what functions that might serve,” study co-author Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and philosophy scholar at UC Berkeley, said in the release. “Our paper suggests mind-wandering is as much a positive feature of cognition as a quirk and explains something we all experience.”
The U.S. National Endowment for the Arts has more on creative thinking.
SOURCE: University of California, Berkeley, news release, Jan. 18, 2021