The attentive mind is a powerful lens, that allows our brains to discern the relevant details from the immense flow of information reaching us every second. The father of modern psychology, William James called our fleeting minds, birds, alternating between flying and perching. However, when the mind lacks focus and motivation it leaves us thinking about irrelevant things of past, future, forgotten ideas, etc which are the foundation concept of ‘mind wandering’. Mind blanking – halt in the stream of consciousness can also lead to inattention. Researchers recently figured out the reason behind ‘zoning’ and they believe that part of the brain falls asleep.
Thomas Andrillon and his team published in Nature Communications their major finding that” attentional lapses share a common physiological origin: the emergence of local sleeplike activity within the awake brain.”.
The reason behind it lies in the physiology of sleep itself. Sleep starts with the ‘slow waves’ activity of the brain, also known as Non-rapid Eye Movement Sleep, followed by deep or Rapid Eye Movement Sleep. But on the contrary, ‘local sleep’ is what causes the sleep-like activity of the brain, it happens when a person is awake but a small area or part of the brain enters a sleep-like state. Contrary to common belief, this ‘local sleep’ isn’t always related to tiredness or lack of rest, as the researchers are found this local sleep in well-rested participants, as they zone out. This suggests that a single phenomenon – local sleep intrusions during waking hours – could explain a broad range of attentional lapses, from mind-wandering and impulsivity to “going blank” and sluggishness.
For the study, the tool 26 volunteers who were well-rested, and had to undergo the boring test known to science – The Go/NoGo test. The brain activity was recorded using an electroencephalogram (EEG). This test requires sustained attention but the researchers found that “our participants declared focusing on the task only in ~48 percent of the probes,the rest of the time, they declared thinking about something else or thinking about nothing.” Just when their mind blanked or wandered, the EEG showed specific types of slow-wave in a localized area of the brain, similar to what has been observed in the whole brain when a person falls asleep. Slow waves in the frontal areas of the brain were associated with mind-wandering, while that in the posterior areas was linked to mind blanking.
Scientists are currently exploring whether this phenomenon of local sleep could be exacerbated in some individuals. For example, most people suffering from attentional deficits and/or hyperactivity disorders (ADHD) also report disrupted sleep. This may result in an increase in local sleep episodes during the day and could explain part of their attentional problems.
In short, they proved that “the slow waves are generated by similar neural mechanisms as slow waves in sleep, and future studies could use direct evidence from intracranial recordings or sleep deprivation to more solidly establish this interpretation”.
Attention, Cognitive control, Consciousness, Wakefulness, daydreaming, the mind wanders, focus