This study found out why our minds wander so often

Photo: Chinmay Singh

Like a television accidentally left on all night, the human brain never stops working, processing, and thinking. Thanks to this “always on” tendency, it’s near impossible to keep one’s mind focused every moment of each day.

Everyone’s mind wanders, and while some are more adept at reigning in their thoughts than others, absentminded daydreams are an unavoidable part of the human experience.

From the first-grader who can’t help but wonder what’s for dinner while her teacher explains mathematics right down to the seasoned businessman who finds himself reminiscing over old memories during an important board meeting, daydreaming isn’t limited to any one age group or demographic.

This all brings us to the nagging question of why. Why does the human mind wander so much? From an evolutionary or purely survival-related perspective, it doesn’t seem like it would be all that helpful to start daydreaming while trying to avoid a predator or catch tonight’s dinner. Well, after developing an innovative new way to track individual’s thought patterns in real-time researchers from the University of California, Berkeley may finally have an answer.

When participants’ brains started wandering and jumping randomly from one thought and topic to another, elevated alpha brain waves were recorded within their prefrontal cortexes. This is very important because increased alpha wave activity in this portion of the brain is associated with creativity. So, these findings suggest that humanity’s unique creativity, a trait that has helped our race tremendously, is supported by daydreaming.

Moreover, study authors conclude that tuning out the external world at times and allowing one’s mind to wander freely is necessary for healthy brain function and actively promotes relaxation and exploration. 

For reference, alpha brain waves are any slow brain rhythms with a frequency between nine and 14 cycles per second.

In addition to all that, another specific brainwave pattern was observed while participants stopped paying attention to the task at hand. In these scenarios, weaker P3 brain signals were noted within the parietal cortex.

“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,” says study senior author Robert Knight, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience, in a release.

Researchers say now that they’ve collected a “blueprint” of sorts of typical brain wave activity during various types of thinking (daydreaming, focused attention, etc), those patterns can potentially be used in the future to predict peoples’ thought tendencies before they even realize their mind is wandering.

“This could help detect thought patterns linked to a spectrum of psychiatric and attention disorders and may help diagnose them,” explains lead study author Julia Kam, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary.

The experiment that produced these findings involved 39 adults hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) measuring their brain activity throughout the process. To start, each person was taught the difference between four specific categories of thinking: freely moving, task-related, automatically constrained, and deliberately constrained. 

Then, participants played a simple computer game in which they had to click either a left or right arrow key in accordance with whichever arrow appeared on the monitor. After each round subjects wrote down on a scale of one to seven which of the four categories they believed their thought patterns matched. After all that the research team took all the responses, separated them across the four thought categories, and matched them up with recorded brain scans.

“The ability to detect our thought patterns through brain activity is an important step toward generating potential strategies for regulating how our thoughts unfold over time, a strategy useful for healthy and disordered minds alike,” Professor Kam adds.

Most people would probably assume that a wandering mind isn’t exactly conducive to getting things done. However, researchers argue that human productivity just isn’t that cut and dry, especially when it comes to creative endeavors. A little bit of thought chaos can help.

“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,” notes study co-author Zachary Irving, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia.

“Our paper suggests mind-wandering is as much a positive feature of cognition as a quirk and explains something we all experience,” concludes co-author Alison Gopnik, a UC Berkeley developmental psychologist and philosophy scholar.

Mankind owes a whole lot to our capacity for creativity, so perhaps we should all be thankful for our wandering minds. Life would be very boring without a little bit of daydreaming. 

The full study can be found here, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).