Illustration of balloons floating away from a person's body, symbolizing wandering minds. Gary Neill

Can you watch a mind wandering? A fascinating collaboration between cognitive scientists and UVA assistant professor of philosophy Zachary Irving managed to do just that. Using brain-wave measuring EEG, the researchers identified a distinct electrophysiological “signature” of freely moving, undirected thoughts—or what is going on when your mind is wandering “with no overarching purpose and direction,” the study’s authors write.

Paying attention isn’t simply an on/off state. The researchers identified different states of thought, each with a unique signature, including deliberately constrained focus, unconstrained mind-wandering and involuntarily constrained thinking—or what happens when your focus is hijacked by distracting and “task-unrelated” thoughts, like mulling over an argument with a spouse. Understanding and identifying such “dynamics of thought,” the researchers write, could have a range of potential applications in psychology, from better understanding conditions like depression and ADHD to identifying productive thinking and learning strategies. “Attention has multiple ‘natural tendencies,’” the authors write. “Our study shows that those thought types have distinct behavioral and electrophysiological signatures.”