Some people fail at meditation because their minds are rarely still. The question arises about where our minds roam. The researchers have come up with a way to track the flow our internal thought processes and signal if our minds are focused, fixated or wandering.
The research led by UC Berkeley is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The brain activity was measured by using an electroencephalogram (EEG) while the people performed dull and boring attention tasks. The researchers were able to identify brain signals which showed that when the mind is not focused on the task at hand or aimlessly wandering, especially after concentrating on an assignment.
On the other hand, weak brain signals called as P3 were seen in the parietal cortex which offered a neural marker for when people are not paying attention to the task at hand.
Senior author of the study Robert Knight, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience said, "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."
The findings of this study suggest that by tuning out our external environment and by allowing our internal thoughts to move freely and creatively are required function of the brain and can promote relaxation and exploration.
Researchers and clinicians can detect certain patterns of thinking even before the patients are aware of where their minds are wandering by studying EEG markers of how our thoughts flow when our brains are at rest.
This can also help in the detection of thought patterns linked to a spectrum of psychiatric and attention disorders and can also help in its diagnosis.
Zachary Irving, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia said, "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."
The co-author of the study, Alison Gopnik, a UC Berkeley developmental psychologist and philosophy scholar stated that babies and young children's mind wonder constantly and the paper suggests that mind-wandering is a positive feature of cognition as a quirk and explains something we all experience.
For the study, 39 adults were taught difference between four different categories of thinking: freely moving, deliberately constrained, task-related, and automatically constrained.
Further experiments were conducted by wearing electrodes on the participant's head that measured their brain activity. The participants sat in front of the computer screen and tapped left or right arrow keys to correspond with left and right arrows appearing in random sequences on the screen.
After finishing the sequence, the participants were asked to rate their experience on a scale of one to seven- if they had thoughts during the task had been related to the task, freely moving, deliberately constrained or automatically constrained.
The recorded brain activity is matched against the responses to the questions about thought processes which were divided into four groups.
Increased alpha wave activity in the brain's frontal cortex was seen in patients having thoughts that moved freely from topic to topic. This pattern was linked with the generation of creative ideas. Lesser P3 brain signals during off-task thoughts was also found.
Kam said, "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."