Some people call them earworms, some call them mind-pops, but random thoughts that enter your brain for no apparent reason are actually important, according to scientists. Our brains can surprise us with sudden random memories. It could be a line from a play that you were in from 6th grade or a song from a commercial that you saw last week.
The complete unpredictability of these thoughts is a fun part of being human; we get to still be amazed by our brains. Even when science has explored almost all of our grey matter, they are still able to learn new things that we are capable of.
Stray or random thoughts are what scientists call involuntary semantic memories. These thoughts are involuntary, meaning they were not something you were trying to think of. Semantic refers to facts or events, but the word itself means meaning. These random thoughts are memories that come back to you when you aren’t expecting them and they have no apparent meaning.
The most interesting part of these random thoughts is that they might not be random after all. Scientists think that these memories are trying to help you solve a problem.
A song can get stuck in your head or pop into your mind at random. Often, it’s just a portion of a song that we hear repeatedly in our minds, like the chorus. The distinguishing feature of mind-pops is that we have no conscious control over them.
Music that pops into your head at random is called involuntary musical imagery. The more scientific definition of this musical phenomenon is ‘introspective persistence of a musical experience in the absence of direct sensory instigation of that experience.’ In other words, you are hearing things that aren’t really there, but that you have heard before.
A musical earworm is usually a song with lyrics that you enjoy or a melody that brings up a particular emotion for you. These persistent songs that get stuck in your mind can be annoying, but what if they were trying to solve a problem for you, rather than annoy you?
Here’s an example:
* You are postponing doing your taxes because you have an unusual situation and might need help. Time goes by while you worry about this problem.
* Days later, the name song pops in your head and you start singing ‘Banana fana fo fana, Hannah.’
This makes you think of your friend Hannah that you knew in college who is now an accountant and who can probably help you with your taxes.
The random earworm song that popped into your mind helped you to remember that you have a friend who can help you solve your problem. Problem solving is one way that scientists believe our random mind pops are benefitting us.
A seemingly random thought can usually be traced back to a trigger. In this example, the trigger was the problem of needing help with filing taxes.
Scientists believe that random thoughts are likely the result of memory processing and also creative thinking. You may start to notice that you have mind-pops more often when you have a problem that you want to solve.
It’s as if you have told your brain to search for things that can help you solve the problem and your brain responds with random things that are connected.
‘Researchers speculate that mind pops are the result of long-term semantic priming, with an initial exposure to a source of information ‘activating a web of representations in the mind that stay activated until a relevant stimulus in our environment’ triggers the semantic memory. The tenuous relationship between some of these initial activation experiences and the semantic memories that result from them minutes, hours, and even days later hints at a correlation between mind-popping and creative thinking,’ an ability to perceive connections between seemingly unrelated concepts.
People who experience frequent random thoughts tend to rate higher on tests of creative thinking. In a study of the brains of research subjects and their random thoughts, ‘High-frequency mind pops were significantly associated with “larger grey and white matter volume in the prefrontal cortex. This increase in mind pops is also linked to higher creativity and the personality trait of ‘openness.”
Being mindful is the best way to make use of random thoughts to enhance your creativity. Here are a few ideas to help you allow your random thoughts solve problems for you:
Dwell on the random thought for 90 seconds – Sing along with the song or immerse yourself in the memory that was brought up.
* Read 7 Things That Keep You From Living in the Now – Our guide to avoiding things that keep you from being mindful will help you make use of random thoughts when they happen.
* Think briefly about your current problem – What is it that you are currently struggling with?
Think about how the random thought connects to the problem – Is there a connection between the random thought and the problem?