09/22/2021 at 08:00 CEST
An international team of scientists, made up of universities in the United States and Canada, has established for the first time the neural markers of hidden thoughts, that endless stream of unmanifested ideas that occupies our minds when we are awake.
It has been able to determine that the brain tracks our thoughts while we are in a state of internal attention and detects whether we are concentrating or letting the flow of ideas that generates neural activity pass.
Inner attention, which encompasses daydreaming, creative thinking and obsession with an idea, can occupy up to 50 percent of our thoughts while we are awake, the researchers note.
Research has found that free-flowing inner thoughts are strongly linked to positive emotions and creative processes, while hidden thoughts that engulf us tend to be associated with negative emotions, according to the researchers.
The study also sheds new light on the much-maligned “wandering mind” (ranging from simple unfocused attention to reverie) and shows that this state of mind has its positive attributes.
Analyzing brainsUsing the electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain activity while a group of people performed common attention tasks, the researchers identified brain signals that reveal when the mind is focused on a task or wandering aimlessly.
It is the first time that neurophysiological evidence has been obtained of how the brain distinguishes different internal thought patterns, which allows a better understanding of the variety of thoughts that exist in the realm of human cognition, says the study’s lead author, Robert Knight, in a statement.
The results of this research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that disconnecting our external environment and allowing our internal thoughts to move freely and spontaneously is a necessary brain function that can promote relaxation and creativity , according to the researchers.
Additionally, EEG markers that detect how our inner thoughts flow can help researchers and clinicians detect certain thought patterns related to a spectrum of attention and psychiatric disorders, even before patients even realize where their minds are wandering. .
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Thoughts and creativity
Thoughts and creativityTo reach these conclusions, the researchers worked with 39 volunteers who provided basic information about thought patterns, and then asked them to perform a simple cognitive task.
The task consisted of contemplating a computer screen in which a series of arrows appeared pointing in different directions. The volunteers had to notice which arrows were pointing in the same direction.
While they performed this task, their brain activity was recorded by encephalogram (EEG) through electrodes strategically distributed over the scalp.
At the end of the task, the researchers asked the volunteers what degree of interest and concentration they had devoted to the identification of arrows, and then compared those subjective impressions with the EEG data.
Tuning with the brain
Tuning with the brainThey found that people’s accounts of their mental processes while performing the task closely corresponded to the types of brain waves recorded for each of them.
They also observed that there are different robust neural markers, some for when our attention is not focused on a task, and others for when our thoughts wander from one topic to another.
An increase in alpha brain waves was also detected in the prefrontal cortex of two dozen study participants as their thoughts jumped from topic to topic, providing a clear electrophysiological signature for spontaneous and unrestricted thinking.
Alpha waves are relatively long brain waves, with a frequency of about 9 to 14 cycles per second. Previous research had established that these waves are associated with relaxed and meditative states. The new research strengthens the link between alpha waves and free-roaming states of mind, according to the researchers.
Weaker brain signals, known as P3, were also seen in the volunteers at the back of the brain, offering another neural marker for when subjects weren’t paying attention to the task being performed.
Knowing these brain wave patterns and their relationship to specific mental states ultimately implies that, theoretically, it is possible to detect what kinds of thoughts occupy a person’s mind, without having to ask what they are thinking, the researchers conclude.
ReferenceDistinct electrophysiological signatures of task-unrelated and dynamic thoughts. Julia WY Kam et al. PNAS January 26, 2021 118 (4) e2011796118. DOI: https: //doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2011796118
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