Home » MRI scans reveal how our brains enter a sleep-like state when we zone out 

MRI scans reveal how our brains enter a sleep-like state when we zone out 

by Press room

It really IS possible for your mind to go completely blank! MRI scans reveal how our brains enter a sleep-like state when we zone out

  • Scientists looked at 36 participants’ brains while in an MRI machine
  • People found they mind going blank about five to seven per cent of the time
  • The scans showed how their brains entered a sleep-like state while zoned out 

If you are speaking to your other half, and they suddenly stare off into space, try not to be offended.

Sometimes people’s minds naturally go blank, a study has found, with their brain appearing to automatically shut off their thoughts.

Researchers looked at 36 people who were put into an MRI machine and asked to describe their thoughts.

People found their mind going blank about five to seven per cent of the time.

The scan results showed their brain entering an almost sleep-like state, with steady activity across all regions, instead of the variable activity in different brain areas linked to thought.

The researchers now suspect there is a good evolutionary reason for zoning out when concentrating would be better – to stop our brains getting too tired.

If you are speaking to your other half, and they suddenly stare off into space, try not to be offended. Sometimes people’s minds naturally go blank, a study has found, with their brain appearing to automatically shut off their thoughts (stock image)

The scan results showed their brain entering an almost sleep-like state during a mind blank (MB), with steady activity across all regions, instead of the variable activity in different brain areas linked to thought

The scan results showed their brain entering an almost sleep-like state during a mind blank (MB), with steady activity across all regions, instead of the variable activity in different brain areas linked to thought

Forgetting is a form of learning, study claims 

Instead of our memories decaying with time, forgetting is actually an active form of learning that helps our brain to access more important information.

This is the conclusion of experts from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Toronto, who said that ‘lost’ memories are not really gone, just made inaccessible.

Memories, they explained, are stored permanently in sets of neurons, with our brains deciding which ones we keep access to and which irrelevant ones are locked away.

These choices, they said, are based on environmental feedback, theoretically allowing us flexibility in the face of change and better decision-making as a result.

If correct, the findings could lead to new ways to understand and treat memory loss associated with disease — such as is seen, for example, in patients with Alzheimer’s.

Dr Athena Demertzi, senior author of the study from the University of Liège in Belgium, said: ‘Ours is the first study to find people’s minds naturally go blank, and that this is caused by specific activity in the brain.

‘People who blank out are often judged for not listening properly or being lazy, but people can’t actually help it, and we now think it is a good thing.

‘Having many thoughts can leave brain cells exhausted, so this may be a way to conserve energy.’

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at people given regular prompts to report their thoughts while in an MRI machine.

Every minute or so, after hearing a beep, they chose from four options on a screen to describe their thoughts.

Most often, people were thinking about their own environment, such as the sound of the MRI machine, the experiment, like how long it would take, or something else, like what they planned to have for dinner.

But people also sometimes chose the option to show their mind had gone blank, meaning they could not remember what they had thought about, or their brain felt empty of thoughts.

When this happened, the researchers saw a pattern of universal brain activity across around 100 separate brain regions.

The steady stream of signals between brain cells, with no one signal amplified much more than any other, is similar to what is seen when people are deeply asleep.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at people given regular prompts to report their thoughts while in an MRI machine (stock image)

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at people given regular prompts to report their thoughts while in an MRI machine (stock image) 

The brain scan results suggest that when people’s minds go blank, it might be because they have literally no thoughts, or instead because they cannot access or remember their thoughts.

More research needed to determine exactly what is going on (SUBS – pls keep).

Dr Demertzi said: ‘We know from previous studies that people daydream and their minds wander about half of the time.

‘But the mind going blank is different, and is probably good for you.

‘I certainly no longer worry as much when I drift off in a meeting, as the brain seems to have good reason for this.’

EXPLAINED: MAGNETIC RESONANCE IMAGING USED MAGNETIC FIELDS TO SEE INSIDE THE BODY

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of scan that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body.

An MRI scanner is a large tube that contains powerful magnets. You lie inside the tube during the scan.

An MRI scan can be used to examine almost any part of the body, including the brain and spinal cord, bones and joints, breasts, heart and blood vessels and internal organs – such as the liver, womb or prostate gland. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of scan that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body. An MRI scanner is a large tube that contains powerful magnets. You lie inside the tube during the scan

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of scan that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body. An MRI scanner is a large tube that contains powerful magnets. You lie inside the tube during the scan

The results of an MRI scan can be used to help diagnose conditions, plan treatments and assess how effective previous treatment has been.

Most of the human body is made up of water molecules, which consist of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. At the centre of each hydrogen atom is an even smaller particle, called a proton. Protons are like tiny magnets and are very sensitive to magnetic fields.

When you lie under the powerful scanner magnets, the protons in your body line up in the same direction, in the same way that a magnet can pull the needle of a compass.

Short bursts of radio waves are then sent to certain areas of the body, knocking the protons out of alignment. When the radio waves are turned off, the protons realign. This sends out radio signals, which are picked up by receivers.

These signals provide information about the exact location of the protons in the body. They also help to distinguish between the various types of tissue in the body, because the protons in different types of tissue realign at different speeds and produce distinct signals.

In the same way that millions of pixels on a computer screen can create complex pictures, the signals from the millions of protons in the body are combined to create a detailed image of the inside of the body.

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