by Kylie Chen (’24) | March 29, 2021
While working on different tasks, people often tend to zone out or let their minds wander to other subjects. When will I be done with this assignment? What’s for dinner? Did I forget to lock the door? Do I have anything else to do later today? For the first time, scientists are able to connect our brain’s electrical activity to these various thought patterns. A new study has found that there are distinct electrophysiological patterns associated with thoughts that are and are not related to tasks.
This study tracked multiple types of brain waves but mainly focused on alpha waves. In healthy adults, alpha waves occur while they are resting with their eyes closed but not sleeping. This activity, along with other brain activity, can be shown in an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that records electrical activity like brain waves.
In the study, participants’ brain activity was monitored using an EEG cap while they performed a task. After some time, they were stopped and asked questions regarding their thoughts before continuing the task. This process was repeated thirty-five times for each of the thirty-nine participants. These thoughts were then sorted into four categories: task-unrelated, freely moving, deliberately constrained, and automatically constrained. Task-unrelated thoughts were determined based on whether or not the participant was focused on the task, and freely moving thoughts were determined based on whether or not the participant’s thoughts were flowing freely. Additionally, deliberately constrained thoughts were determined based on whether or not the participant was focusing on a topic on purpose, while automatically constrained thoughts were determined based on whether or not the participant’s thoughts were unintentionally stuck on a specific subject. The study found stronger alpha waves during the periods when the participants had not been paying attention; instead, they had let their minds wander freely to other subjects (the thoughts fit into the categories of task-unrelated and freely moving). The presence of strong alpha waves has also been shown during creative processes as well, indicating that wandering thoughts may be important to creative problem-solving.
Does this mean that it is better to let your mind wander instead of staying focused? No, this discovery does not mean that you should never stay focused on a task. Whether or not you stay concentrated on one task depends on what you are trying to accomplish. In some cases, like when taking a test, it is more beneficial to stay focused. However, if you wish to engage in something more creative that requires you to think outside of the box (like writing or art), letting your mind wander could be the key to success.