Letting Your Mind Wander Can Actually Be a Good Thing

Meditation and mindfulness aren’t for everyone. In fact, recent research found that mindfulness exercises — while effective for some — don’t work for all. The process of meditation can be tricky when your mind doesn’t want to settle down and stopping thoughts in their tracks can be tough to do.

How many times have you sat down to meditate or practise mindfulness, only to have your thoughts run away from the exercise at hand? Given the commonality of this, researchers at UC Berkeley tracked internal thought processes of 39 adults in order to explore whether their mind was focused or wandering during certain tasks.

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), researchers measured brain activity while participants performed mundane tasks, in order to find out whether their mind was focused on the task at hand or wandering aimlessly instead.

According to Science Daily, increased alpha brain waves — which are linked to the generation of creative ideas — were found in the prefrontal cortex of more than two dozen participants when their thoughts jumped from one topic to another, which in turn, created “an electrophysiological signature for unconstrained, spontaneous thought”.

“For the first time, we have neurophysiological evidence that distinguishes different patterns of internal thought, allowing us to understand the varieties of thought central to human cognition and to compare between healthy and disordered thinking,” said study senior author Robert Knight, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience.

This research suggests that allowing internal thoughts to move freely, while also tuning out the external environment, is a necessary function of the brain and actually helps to promote relaxation and exploration, says Science Daily. The markers picked up by the EEG of the way your thoughts flow when your brain is resting allowed researchers to actually detect certain thought patterns, even before the person is aware that their mind has wandered.

“This could help detect thought patterns linked to a spectrum of psychiatric and attention disorders and may help diagnose them,” said study lead author Julia Kam, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary.

While practising mindfulness undoubtedly has many benefits, this research shows the importance of letting your thoughts wander freely when needed, as this encourages creativity and investigation.

“If you focus all the time on your goals, you can miss important information,” said co-author Zachary Irving, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia. “And so, having a free-association thought process that randomly generates memories and imaginative experiences can lead you to new ideas and insights.”

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