31.05.2023 change 31.05.2023

Scientists explore what happens when daydreams take over your brain

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Scientists from Lublin have investigated how the brain works during uncontrolled distraction from a task and mind-wandering. 'Such a brain feels lost as to what it should be doing', says the team leader, Dr. Paweł Krukow.

The researchers looked at the neural connections of the uncontrolled mind-wandering tendency in healthy people. It is the state when we stop focusing on current tasks, things that are happening around us, and we immerse ourselves in our internal experiences - we make plans or recall past events.

'During mind wandering, there is no strong control over the content. This state is believed to be related to creativity or coming up with original ideas. It is a positive and desirable phenomenon, when, for example, we want to relax after a tiring day, we turn on some music and get carried away by our thoughts', says Dr. Krukow, head of the interdisciplinary Department of Clinical Neuropsychiatry, Medical University of Lublin.

He explains, however, that some people are not able to fully control when their mind starts to wander. There are situations in which someone would like to maintain increased focus, but is unable to do that and begins to daydream involuntarily. Dr. Krukow gives an example of a student who attends a very complicated and important lecture and wants to concentrate, but cannot, because his mind is constantly wandering off.

'Research indicates that this mind-wandering is more characteristic of people with attention disorders including ADHD, so it is part of broader cognitive disorders. But scientists are concerned whether the uncontrollable mind-wandering itself also requires therapy', says Dr. Krukow.

The researcher adds that no one can maintain attention at the same level all the time. 'Focus is a sine wave. In these changes, however, the sine wave may have unfavourable proportions. And so, changes between functions can occur at inopportune moments. For example, too often or too rarely. We want to understand the dynamics of such changes', he says.

The scientist explains that when the mind wanders excessively, the level of synchronization changes within a neural network called the default mode network. This network is related to our sense of identity, continuity, autobiographical memory, everything that happens when we think about ourselves, about our plans, when we have subjective internal experiences. This network consists of different areas in the front and back of the brain that are strongly synchronized with each other. If one of these structures fires up, the others tend to follow a similar pattern of activity.

There are also areas of the brain that are more active when we focus on completing tasks: when we do a crossword puzzle, when we read a complex text, when we listen to a difficult lecture. These structures form on-task neural networks.

When the 'on-task' network is active, the 'wandering' network is usually turned off. And when the 'wandering' network activates, the 'on-task' network should turn off. They usually compete with each other.

It turns out that in people with an uncontrollable tendency to mind-wander, the opposition between these two networks is blurred. 'The brain seems to be lost; doesn't know what it's processing - whether it's supposed to process a task or information from within', Krukow says.

His research published jointly with Dr. Kamil Jonak from the Lublin University of Technology in Scientific Reports shows that people who tend to distract themselves from tasks uncontrollably have impaired synchronization of default mode network areas. 'The quality of synchronization between areas is a guarantee of the efficiency of complex mental functions. The more complex the function the brain generates, the more it must rely on the cooperation between many areas of the brain’, says Krukow. 

A large proportion of people prone to mind-wandering present an unusual organization of brain activity at rest. In turn, more resources are involved in maintaining focus during the task, the researchers conclude in their paper.

'Neuroscientists are usually interested in a cross-sectional perspective - how given traits are distributed in society. We are particularly interested in how processes in the brain begin and end', Krukow explains. He adds that areas of the brain are able to synchronize their activity. It is possible to measure whether these connections are, for example, permanent, variable, chaotic or repetitive.

'The research we conduct on various levels mainly concerns people with mental disorders (and only exceptionally mind-wandering in healthy people). Thanks to this approach, we want to expand our knowledge about how the psyche and functioning of the brain are presented in the form of a narrative spread over time. Life consists of things happening over time, not just individual moments. Research has so far focused in particular on getting a still picture of what the brain is doing. And we want to watch the functioning of the nervous system like in a movie', Krukow says.(PAP)

PAP - Science in Poland, Ludwika Tomala

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