Jan. 21, 2021

Mysteries of the wandering mind

UCalgary psychologist Julia Kam and team first to identify the neural markers of internal thought
Julia Kam
Julia Kam

When someone is perceived to be “living inside their head,” it’s not often viewed in a positive light in our society. A mind that wanders excessively from one thought to the next is generally not focused in the classroom, or at the task at hand in the workplace. Being too distracted can lead to serious consequences when engaged in activities that require close attention, such as driving. A more severe lack of focus can also be a sign of a larger issue, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

And yet, to varying degrees, we’re all living inside our heads each and every day. Internal attention, which can range from daydreaming and creative thinking, to rumination, can occupy up to 50 per cent of our waking thoughts, says Dr. Julia Kam, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Psychology .  

Thanks to a newly published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we now have a greater understanding of the dynamics of our internal thoughts. “Our work is the first to identify the neural markers of thought dynamics,” says Kam, pictured above, lead author of the study that she began during her time as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

We’ve been able to use brain signals to distinguish different patterns of internal thought and we’ve discovered that there are robust neural markers for when our attention is not focused on a task and when our thoughts wander from topic to topic.

For the study, researchers used electroencephalograms (EEGs) to measure the brain activity of test subjects as they performed a task that required mundane attention, periodically answering questions about their ongoing thoughts during the task.

Focused, fixed or wandering

Using this method, researchers identified distinct brain signals that manifested when the subjects were not focused on their tasks, or when then their minds were aimlessly wandering. This discovery allows researchers to track the flow of our internal thought processes, indicating whether our minds are focused, fixated or wandering.

Increased alpha brain waves were detected in the prefrontal cortex of two dozen study participants when their thoughts jumped from one topic to another, providing an electrophysiological signature for unconstrained, spontaneous thought. Meanwhile, weaker brain signals, known as the P3, were observed in the posterior part of the brain, offering another neural marker for when subjects were not paying attention to the task at hand.

“When our thoughts jump from one topic to another, or when we’re not paying attention to a task, there are different patterns activated in the brain, which we can now detect,” says Kam.

“This study examines a phenomenon that we all experience. That’s our ability to wander away from the here and now in our minds, whether it’s reminiscing about our past, planning for the future, or contemplating the meaning of life or love.”

Hope for those who are struggling

The discovery might have important implications for detecting and better treating the onset of troublesome thought patterns in certain clinical populations, says Kam. This could include fleeting, unfocused thoughts in individuals with ADHD.

Further, the study shines new light on the much-maligned “wandering mind” and shows that this state has its positive attributes. “There’s a distinction between thoughts that flow from topic to topic and those that take us off-task when we’re not paying attention to what we’re supposed to be doing,” Kam says.

“Our co-author, [Dr.] Caitlin Mills, [PhD, with the University of New Hampshire,] has found that thoughts that flow freely are strongly linked with positive emotions and they’ve also been associated with creative processes, whereas those thoughts that take us off-task tend to be more strongly associated with negative emotions.”

Kam hopes her research might bring hope to those who struggle with focusing. “In our society, there’s so much emphasis placed on focus as the key to success,” she says. “Indeed, being focused and on-task can be excellent qualities. But there are times when a freely wandering mind and less focus can also be important beneficial, even. This thought pattern should not be inherently undesirable. This very much depends on the context within which it occurs and whether we can control when it occurs.”

Julia Kam is also a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute with the Cumming School of Medicine.

Led by the Hotchkiss Brain InstituteBrain and Mental Health is one of six research strategies guiding the University of Calgary toward its Eyes High goals. The strategy provides a unifying direction for brain and mental health research at the university.

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