In a First, Scientists Detect the Unique Markers and Benefits of Daydreams


Jan 25, 2021


Image credit: Getty

In a new study, scientists have captured distinct neurophysiological signatures of different thought patterns to give us a better understanding of human cognition and healthy and disordered thinking. 

“Being on task and focused are important qualities,” study co-author Julia Kam, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Calgary tells Inverse. “But there are times when a freely wandering mind can also be beneficial. This thought pattern should not be inherently undesirable.” It’s especially useful for creative outputs. 

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that detects electrical activity in the brain using small, metal electrodes attached to the scalp, researchers saw different parts of the brain light up based on whether the mind was fixed, focused, or wandering. This offers an unprecedented look into humans’ train of thought, even suggesting it may be possible to manipulate this cognitive process to foster creativity or relaxation.

The researchers behind the study, which was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, trained 39 adults to recognize the difference between four different categories of thinking: task-related, freely moving, deliberately constrained, and automatically constrained.

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Then, while wearing electrodes on their heads that measured brain activity, they sat at a computer screen with a task: to tap left or right arrow keys to correspond with left and right arrows appearing in random sequences on the screen. When they finished a sequence, they were asked to rate on a scale of one to seven whether their thoughts during the task had been related to the task itself, freely moving, deliberately constrained, or automatically constrained. 

For the study, a task-related thought would be thinking about tapping the appropriate keys at the right time; a freely moving thought would be thought about food or a memory popping in randomly during the task; a deliberately constrained thought would be focusing on a future goal; automatically constrained thoughts would be people “stuck” in thought patterns, such as fixated on a worry about money or a relationship when they should be focused on the task.

After the initial experiment, participants’ responses to the questions about thought processes were then divided into four thought categories and matched against the recorded brain activity. When study participants reported having thoughts that moved freely from topic to topic, they showed increased alpha wave activity in the brain’s frontal cortex. Alpha waves are slow brain rhythms that are a sign of “wakeful rest,” and are linked to the generation of creative ideas. This finding provides a brain signature for an unconstrained, spontaneous thought, says the team of researchers.

In the future, scientists might be able to harness this instrumental approach to detect thought patterns in real-time and actively induce creative alpha brain waves. This could potentially, help people better regulate their thinking and, in turn, be more creative.


Written By Satviki Sanjay

Satviki Sanjay is an editorial intern at The Swaddle. She’s currently studying philosophy at Miranda House. When not studying, she can be found writing about gender, internet culture, sexuality, technology, and mental health. She loves talking to people, and you can always find her on Instagram @satvikii.


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