Karen Hopkin: This is Scientific american60 seconds of science. This is Karen Hopkin.
It happened to all of us.You may be reading a book or washing dishes, or even when listening to a podcast you suddenly realize that your thoughts are mile Leave.
Well, if you have ever wondered why your mind is distracted, you may want to pay attention to this. A new study shows that, similar to the local brain waves that appear when we fall asleep, it is related to a brief interruption of our stream of consciousness.
Research results are published in journals Nature Communications. [Thomas Andrillon et al., Predicting lapses of attention with sleep-like slow waves]
Thomas Andryon Professors from the Paris Brain Institute became interested in the neural mechanisms of daydreaming when traveling long distances with his wife.
Andrillon: We drove on three continents for a year and accumulated a long time on difficult roads.
Hopkins: As time passed, Andrillon found that his attention would diverge from the road ahead.
Andrillon: Indeed, somewhere deep in Patagonia, I flipped our car on the roof-just because I was thinking about other things and reacted badly when I returned to the real world.
Hopkin: No one was hurt, but this incident did make Andrea wonder…
Andrillon: When our thoughts wander, what happens in our brains?
Hopkin: It actually happened more than you thought.
Andrillon: According to some records, when we are awake, we spend half of the time wandering.
Hopkin: It happens most often when we are tired or tired. At that time…
Andrillon: We can enter a state where although the rest of our brain is clearly awake, part of the brain will exhibit activities similar to sleep.
Hopkins: It’s like a part of the brain needs a nap. But when a person is not tired but rests well, does the same thing happen? Andrillon decided to find out.
Andrillon: To this end, we asked 26 healthy participants to perform a rather boring task…
Hopkins: It’s like pressing a button every time they see an image of a number-unless it’s the number 3.
Andrillon: As you can imagine, it is easy to turn on the autopilot and perform tasks unconsciously, making enough room for distraction.
Hopkins: Researchers will interrupt participants from time to time, asking if they are fully focused, or if they are thinking about other things, or even not thinking about anything. Based on this feedback, the participants seemed to be single-minded and completely “on the task…”
Andrillon: Only half the time.
Hopkin: In order to understand what happened during the rest of the time, the researchers monitored the participants’ brain waves through EEG to observe their nerve rhythms.
During sleep, the brain is covered by slow waves of synchronized neural activity. When the participants stated that they were mentally checked, the team saw something similar.
Andrillon: These slow waves are thought to be related to the suspension of individual neuron activity, which may disrupt neural processes and cause inattention.
Hopkin: The only difference is that the slow waves that Andrillon sees in the experiment are more confined to specific parts of the brain.
Andrillon: Importantly, the location of this slow wave in the brain can distinguish different patterns of inattention.
Hopkin: When the slow waves concentrated on the front of the brain, the volunteers found their thoughts wandering, and they reacted impulsively to the images. At the back of the brain, they said that their brain was blank and they had no response at all. Andrillon said this makes sense, because we know what different parts of the brain do for us.
Andrillon: The front area does participate to a large extent in the regulation of communication control and impulse, while the rear area encodes and integrates sensory information, allowing us to respond to our environment.
Hopkin: Researchers are currently exploring whether these slow waves can be used to promote creative thinking, which may one day bring rich returns to sleep at work.
For the 60-second science of Scientific American, my name is Karen Hopkin.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]