In people who intentionally let their minds wander, two main brain cell networks broadly overlap

April 13, 2017
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our thoughts are not always tethered to events in the moment. Although mind wandering is often considered a lapse in attention, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the University of York in England have shown that when we engage internal thoughts in a deliberate manner, this is reflected by more effective processing in brain systems involved in cognitive control. This could explain why some people benefit from letting their thoughts run free and other do not.

Since people start to make mistakes as soon as they lose concentration on their surroundings, has long been interpreted as a failure in control. Now we know that this phenomenon is more complex: Besides the unintentional, spontaneous wandering of our thoughts, wandering can serve as a kind of deliberate mental rehearsal that allows us to consider future events and solve problems.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the University of York in England have shown that involuntary and intentional mind wandering can be dissociated based on and function, building on prior studies that demonstrate behavioral and psychological differences. "We found that in people who often purposefully allow their minds to go off on a tangent the cortex is thicker in some prefrontal regions", says Johannes Golchert, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and first author of the study. "Furthermore, we found that in people who intentionally mind wander, two main brain networks broadly overlap each other: the default-mode network, which is active when focusing on information from memory, and the fronto-parietal network, which stabilizes our focus and inhibits irrelevant stimuli as part of our system."

While both networks are strongly connected to each other, the control network can influence our thoughts, helping us focus on goals in a more stable manner. This can be seen as evidence that our mental control is not impaired when we deliberately allow our mind to wander. "In this case, our brain barely distinguishes between focusing outwards on our environment or inwards on our thoughts. In both situations the control network is involved", Golchert explains. "Mind wandering should not just be considered as something disturbing. If you're able to control it to some extent, that is to say, suppress it when necessary and to let it run free when possible, then you can make the most of it."

The neuroscientists investigated these relationships using psychological questionnaires and (MRI). Participants were asked to respond to statements such as: "I allow my thoughts to wander on purpose," or "I find my thoughts wandering spontaneously", and then underwent MRI scanning for measures of brain structure and connectivity. The differences in types of mind wandering across participants were then related to differences in brain organization.

Explore further: Understanding mind-wandering could shed light on mental illness

More information: Johannes Golchert et al. Individual variation in intentionality in the mind-wandering state is reflected in the integration of the default-mode, fronto-parietal, and limbic networks, NeuroImage (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.11.025

Related Stories

Understanding mind-wandering could shed light on mental illness

October 31, 2016
If you think the mind grinds to a halt when you're doing nothing, think again.

Minding the details of mind wandering

July 21, 2016
It's long been associated with failing grades and accidents behind the wheel, but it turns out that the wandering mind may be far more complex than many believe.

Researchers discover brain structure that helps us to understand what others think

March 27, 2017
By the age of four years we suddenly start to understand what other people think and that their beliefs about the world might differ from our own. We then manage to do what 3-year-olds are not yet capable of – we can put ...

Not all mind wandering is created equal

March 30, 2016
Mind wandering—sometimes seen as daydreaming or "zoning out"—has been shown to facilitate creative thinking and problem solving, but in the wrong context it can become distracting or even dangerous. Inattentive students ...

Neuroscientists literally change the way we think

February 23, 2015
Does your mind wander when performing monotonous, repetitive tasks? Of course! But daydreaming involves more than just beating back boredom. In fact, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy ...

Resolving contradictions: Better understanding the basic role of the brain's Default Mode Network

December 12, 2016
(Medical Xpress)—With thousands of basic and clinical neuroscience studies carried out over the past 15 years, the Default Mode Network (DMN) – a network of highly co-correlated interacting regions whose activity is very ...

Recommended for you

Researchers find monkey brain structure that decides if viewed objects are new or unidentified

August 18, 2017
A team of researchers working at the University of Tokyo School of Medicine has found what they believe is the part of the monkey brain that decides if something that is being viewed is recognizable. In their paper published ...

Artificial neural networks decode brain activity during performed and imagined movements

August 18, 2017
Artificial intelligence has far outpaced human intelligence in certain tasks. Several groups from the Freiburg excellence cluster BrainLinks-BrainTools led by neuroscientist private lecturer Dr. Tonio Ball are showing how ...

Study of nervous system cells can help to understand degenerative diseases

August 18, 2017
The results of a new study show that many of the genes expressed by microglia differ between humans and mice, which are frequently used as animal models in research on Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

How whip-like cell appendages promote bodily fluid flow

August 18, 2017
Researchers at Nagoya University have identified a molecule that enables cell appendages called cilia to beat in a coordinated way to drive the flow of fluid around the brain; this prevents the accumulation of this fluid, ...

Researchers make surprising discovery about how neurons talk to each other

August 17, 2017
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have uncovered the mechanism by which neurons keep up with the demands of repeatedly sending signals to other neurons. The new findings, made in fruit flies and mice, challenge ...

Neurons involved in learning, memory preservation less stable, more flexible than once thought

August 17, 2017
The human brain has a region of cells responsible for linking sensory cues to actions and behaviors and cataloging the link as a memory. Cells that form these links have been deemed highly stable and fixed.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.