February 23, 2021 5 min read

Why Do Our Minds Wander? Brain Study Shows Benefit of Daydreaming

Even when we are resting, the mind is tremendously active. While we sleep, the brain processes memories, quietly operates a vast network of bodily systems, and repairs damage.

During all of this activity, the mind still wanders. But where, exactly, does it go?

In a fascinating new brain study, scientists get a little closer to answering that puzzling question.

Utilizing EEG technology, researchers captured distinct neurophysiological signatures of four different thought patterns. In turn, when this unique activity lights up in different parts of the brain, it can signal whether our minds are focused, fixated, or wandering, the team says.

The research offers an unprecedented look into humans' train of thought, suggesting it may be possible to manipulate this cognitive process to foster creativity or relaxation.

“We spend so much time 'living in our own minds,' whether it be reminiscing our past, planning for the future, or contemplating equality and diversity,” study co-author Julia Kam tells Inverse. Kam is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Calgary.

“This flow of thoughts that we engage in on a daily basis is fascinating and yet it has been largely unexplored.”

Kam and her team’s latest research sheds light on the function of daydreaming, proving the purposeless process has real value. They show you really can tune out to tune in.

This week, Strategy explores the benefits of freely thinking — unbound by to-do lists, end goals, or future focus.

Ultimately, the research suggests periodically shutting off from the external world and letting your mind take you wherever it wants to go.

"Babies and young children's minds seem to wander constantly, and so we wondered what functions that might serve," study co-author Alison Gopnik says. Gopnik is a developmental psychologist and philosophy scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Our paper suggests mind-wandering is as much a positive feature of cognition as a quirk and explains something we all experience."

Trains of Thought

In the study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers trained 39 adults to recognize the difference between four different categories of thinking: task-related, freely moving, deliberately constrained, and automatically constrained.

Then, while wearing electrodes on their heads that measured brain activity, they sat at a computer screen and tapped left or right arrow keys to correspond with left and right arrows appearing in random sequences on the screen.

When they finished a sequence, they were asked to rate on a scale of one to seven whether their thoughts during the task had been related to the task itself, freely moving, deliberately constrained, or automatically constrained.

In the context of the study, a task-related thought would be thinking about tapping the appropriate keys at the right time. A freely moving thought would be a thought about dinnertime or a memory from middle school popping in during the task. A deliberately constrained thought would be focusing on a future goal. Automatically constrained thoughts come when people become "stuck" in thought patterns, fixated on a worry about money or a relationship when they should be focused on the task.

After the initial experiment, participants’ responses to the questions about thought processes were then divided into four thought categories and matched against the recorded brain activity.

“EEG measures brain signals with excellent temporal precision so it can capture the dynamics of brain activity at the rate that it occurs,” Kam says. “This temporal precision is what allowed us to measure the transient changes in our brain activity associated with the different thought patterns.”

When study participants reported having thoughts that moved freely from topic to topic, they showed increased alpha wave activity in the brain’s frontal cortex.

Alpha waves are slow brain rhythms whose frequency ranges from nine to 14 cycles per second, are a sign of "wakeful rest," and are linked to the generation of creative ideas. This finding provides a brain signature for unconstrained, spontaneous thought, the team says.

Meanwhile, weaker brain signals known as P3 were observed in the parietal cortex, offering a neural marker for when people are not paying attention to the task at hand.

“Being on task and focused are important qualities,” Kam says. “But there are times when a freely wandering mind can also be beneficial.”

This thought pattern should not be “inherently undesirable,” she says. It’s especially useful for creative outputs.

In the future, scientists might be able to harness this instrumental approach to detect thought patterns in real-time, and potentially, help people better regulate their thinking.

"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 co-author Robert Knight says. Knight is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

Making Brain Waves

It is possible to actively induce creative alpha brain waves and, in turn, be more creative.

“Our attentional resources are limited,” Kam explains.

Being focused on a task draws on these resources, and are the opposite of the generative process typically associated with creativity, the researcher adds.

“In letting your mind wander, it potentially frees up attentional resources and also the structured way of thinking that limits creative outputs,” Kam says.

There isn't strong empirical evidence yet on what kinds of activities lead the mind to move freely, study co-author Zac Irving, a philosophy and cognitive scientist researcher at the University of Virginia, tells Inverse.

"My hunch is that activities like talking a walk, taking a shower, or doing the dishes would help," Irving suggests. "Activities that aren't too difficult, but also aren't mind-numbingly boring, which could lead you to just give up on relaxation and switch to a new task."

Relaxing, exercising, practicing mindfulness, or meditating can also enable more spontaneous thoughts.

Importantly, smartphones probably don't help, Irving says.

"Information technology encourages you to spend almost all your time 'stuck' on salient information," Irving says. "So if you want to mind-wander, probably best to unplug."

Ultimately, it’s helpful to periodically allow yourself to aimlessly daydream, regardless of the brain waves it can induce.

“In our daydreams, we imagine new possibilities, realistic or unrealistic,” Markus Baer, a professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School, told Inverse in 2020. (Baer was not involved in this recent brain study.)

“At the heart of creativity is the generation of new and valuable ideas. Thus, our daydreams provide one avenue into such novel worlds,” Baer said.

Even when stuck on a problem, don’t discount the value of letting your imagination run free.

“When one gets stuck on a challenging problem, rather than forcing the mind to work it out consciously, it is valuable to allow for daydreams to occur,” Baer said. “One should not dismiss the content of the daydreams as being irrelevant, as our research suggests that both problem-focused and utterly bizarre daydreams have utility.”


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