How mind wandering is reflected in the brain

It doesn’t matter whether you are already thinking about the end of the day at work or are compiling a shopping list in your head while driving: Everybody wanders with the thoughts. But this can not only reduce your own performance. It can also be dangerous in high-risk work. IfADo psychologist Dr. Stefan Arnau investigated the phenomenon in a recent study in collaboration with researchers of the Heidelberg University. The measurement of alpha power in the brain is therefore a good indicator of thought aberrations.

Various studies have investigated how mind wandering is reflected in the brain, but due to different methods there is still no clear conclusion. Therefore, the researchers focused especially on the methodology of the study. 100 participants were given two different simple and rather monotonous tasks in which they had to complete a total of 640 trials. They were asked at random times between the task trials whether they had just wandered off with their thoughts. If this was the case, the last three trails were labeled as “mind wandering”. 32 persons stated often enough that they wandered in their thoughts. In addition to response time and response accuracy, brain activity was recorded by EEG.

In line with previous studies, persons who were elsewhere with their thoughts made significantly more mistakes. There were also clear results in the EEG: Alpha power was significantly increased during those trials, where the test subjects reported mind wandering. In future EEG studies this result can be taken into account. Furthermore, alpha power could also be measured at work and can be used to detect mind wandering at an early stage. On this way, potential sources of danger could be minimized.

Publikation (Open Access):
Arnau, S, Löffler, C, Rummel, J, Hagemann, D, Wascher, E, Schubert, A‐L. Inter‐trial alpha power indicates mind wandering. Psychophysiology. 2020; 57:e13581. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13581