Understanding mind wandering could shed light on mental illness

A UBC-led review of mind-wandering research proposes a new framework for understanding how thoughts flow, even at rest. Authors argue that their new framework could help researchers better understand the stream of consciousness of patients diagnosed with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Kalina Christoff, the review’s lead author and a professor in UBC’s Department of Psychology, states that mind wandering is typically characterized as thoughts that stray from what you’re doing, and believes that 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. Professor Christoff describes that understanding what makes thought free and what makes it constrained is crucial because it can help researchers understand how thoughts move in the minds of those diagnosed with mental illness.

In the review, the authors propose that thoughts flow freely when the mind is in its default state—mind wandering. Yet two types of constraints—one automatic and the other deliberate—can curtail this spontaneous movement of thoughts. Reviewing neuroscience literature from more than 200 journals, the authors give an account of how the flow of thoughts is grounded in the interaction between different brain networks—a framework that promises to guide future research in neuroscience.

According to the authors, this framework suggests that we all have some 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. Within this framework, spontaneous thought processes—including mind wandering, but also creative thinking and dreaming—arise when thoughts are relatively free from deliberate and automatic constraints. Mind wandering is not far from creative thinking.

The related article, “Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: A dynamic framework,” is published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience and is available online at www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v17/n11/full/nrn.2016.113.html.

. Understanding mind wandering could shed light on mental illness. BCMJ, Vol. 59, No. 1, January, February, 2017, Page(s) 57 - News.

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