Spontaneous thought – or having the mind wander from what a person is currently doing – happens to people anywhere between 30% and half the time they are awake. Neuroscience researchers have been trying to determine implications of spontaneous thought in mental health, with varying degrees of developments in recent years.
Aaron Kucyi, PhD, an assistant professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Dynamic Brain and Mind Lab, recently published a review of these recent developments in Nature Mental Health. He spoke with Drexel News Blog to explain the review and what it means for future mental health interventions.
Can you explain the study?
This was a literature review in which we gathered a team of experts in the field to summarize recent, important advances in the study of how the brain represents “spontaneous thought” and other thoughts that occur when our minds wander away from the world in front of us.
We specifically explored how these types of thoughts depend on a person’s mental health status and how that may impact their brain function. We discussed and synthesized new research that revealed how different parts of the brain coordinate their activity in “networks” that support healthy forms of thought (such as planning or creative ideation) or unhealthy forms of thought (such as excessive rumination and worry).
We also discuss emerging research that points to tight links between the brain’s memory system and the nature of spontaneous thought.
What does the review indicate?
Studies on mind wandering and the brain have mostly been limited to basic science. However, our review demonstrates that there is now growing interest among scientists and clinicians in the practical relevance of this work to mental health. There is excitement around this topic because if we can better understand how these processes work in the brain, then targeted interventions could be designed that may prevent unwanted patterns of thought or guide thoughts toward a healthy direction. It is also possible that brain patterns could track whether thoughts are moving in healthy or unhealthy directions, lending insight to mental health status above and beyond self-reports.
To some extent, neuroscience findings are already being leveraged to develop interventions such as neurosurgical procedures that aim to reduce rumination. A goal for the future is that effective interventions can be less invasive, more accessible and more personalized, but to achieve that, we first need further advances in understanding the brain mechanisms of thought processes at the level of the individual.
What happens next?
I hope that further studies—from us and others— can better clarify what exactly is a healthy or unhealthy pattern of thought and how those patterns are expressed in the brain for a given individual. In my lab, we are currently using brain imaging tools like EEG and fMRI and developing computational analyses to identify person-specific mappings between brain networks and spontaneous experiences. Sorting this out could be key to developing more effective neuroscience-based interventions that could promote mental health in a personalized way.
Is there anything else you’d like to highlight from this study?
It was a pleasure to work on this research with a team of incredibly accomplished experts— Drs. Julia Kam, Jessica Andrews-Hanna, Kalina Christoff, and Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli— who have been developing and applying a variety of tools and theories to study the neuroscience of spontaneous thought over the last 15-20 years.
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