A new paper from the University of British Columbia proposes a new theory for how the brain processes thoughts, even at rest.

Image credits Jaka Ostrovršnik / Flickr.

Mind-wandering is typically considered as thoughts that stray from the task at hand, but lead author Kalina Christoff, a professor in UBC’s department of psychology believes this definition isn’t correct.

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“We believe this definition is limited in that it doesn’t capture the dynamics of thought. Sometimes the mind moves freely from one idea to another, but at other times it keeps coming back to the same idea, drawn by some worry or emotion.”

Understanding what makes some thoughts “free” while keeping others constrained could help us better understand how thoughts behave in the minds of those with mental illness. This could help treat conditions like depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The authors propose that in its default state — mind-wandering — thoughts flow freely. But the mind can impose two types of constraints — one automatic, one deliberate — to influence the flow of thoughts. By compiling data from more than 200 journals, the team explains how the flow of thoughts is determined by an interaction between different brain networks.

“Everyone’s mind has a natural ebb and flow of thought, but our framework reconceptualizes disorders like ADHD, depression and anxiety as extensions of that normal variation in thinking,” said Irving.

“This framework suggests, in a sense, that we all have someone with anxiety and ADHD in our minds. The anxious mind helps us focus on what’s personally important; the ADHD mind allows us to think freely and creatively.”

Inside this framework, spontaneous thoughts — mind-wandering, dreaming, and creative thought — form when the mind is relatively free of automatic or deliberate constraints. In a sense, mind-wandering isn’t that different from creative thinking.

“We propose that mind-wandering isn’t an odd quirk of the mind,” said Christoff.

“Rather, it’s something that the mind does when it enters into a spontaneous mode. Without this spontaneous mode, we couldn’t do things like dream or think creatively.”

The full paper, “Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: a dynamic framework” has been published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.