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

April 13, 2017, Max Planck Society
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

Study suggests mice and rats, like humans, make poor choices based on 'sunk costs'

July 13, 2018
A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota has found that mice and rats, like humans, tend to make poor decisions based on "sunk costs." In their paper published in the journal Science, the group describes their ...

The neurobiology of fruit fly courtship helps illuminates human disorders of motivation

July 13, 2018
Two fruit flies meet in an acrylic mating chamber and check each other out. It's the insect version of speed dating for science.

Fragile X: New drug strategy corrects behavior/biochemical measures in mouse model

July 13, 2018
Research in mice shows that a pharmacological strategy can alleviate multiple behavioral and cellular deficiencies in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome (FXS), the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and ...

Chemicals associated with oxidative stress may be essential to development

July 12, 2018
Some level of molecules linked to oxidative stress may be essential to health and development, according to new animal studies.

The VIPs of the nervous system—a tiny population of neurons holds a master key to the body's clock

July 12, 2018
Travel by airplane has opened the door to experiencing different cultures and exploring natural wonders. That is, if you can get past the jet lag.

Novel therapy delays muscle atrophy in Lou Gehrig's disease model

July 12, 2018
Supplementing a single protein found in the spinal cord could help prevent symptoms of Lou Gehrig's disease, according to a new study out of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Researchers found high levels ...

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.