Alpha-Powered Brain Waves May Unclamp Freely Moving Thoughts

Unclamping the frontal cortex's executive functions may boost dynamic thoughts.

Posted Jan 20, 2021

"Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; the service it will do you will be twice as good. [...] Just as a bicycle chain may be too tight, so may one's carefulness and conscientiousness be so tense as to hinder the running of one's mind." —William James ("The Gospel of Relaxation," 1911)

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For the past two decades, I've been on the lookout for neuroscience-based research that would corroborate my late father's hunch that "unclamping the intellectual machinery of the prefrontal cortex" is key to creative thinking. My dad, Richard Bergland (1932-2007), spent much of his career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School; he was profoundly influenced by the writings of William James, who'd been affiliated with HMS generations before.

James's "Gospel of Relaxation" was like a second Bible to my father. When I was a young tennis player in the 1970s, Dad coached me to avoid choking by quoting Arthur Ashe ("There is a syndrome in sports called 'paralysis by analysis'") and William James ("Unclamp your intellectual machinery"). He pounded these maxims into my head along with his catchphrase, "Stop overthinking! Let it go." In an Obi-Wan Kanobi way, Dad's advice to "let go" by not relying too much on the frontal lobes always reminded me of Luke Skywalker using his intuition (not intellect) to obliterate the Death Star.

My father believed that too much prefrontal cortex-based cerebral thinking inhibited flow states; he speculated that if athletes relied more on the implicit muscle memory of the cerebellum and less on the executive functions of the frontal cortex, they'd be able to get (and stay) in "the zone." This philosophy became the foundation of The Athlete's Way.

Surprisingly, when I retired from sports and became a writer in the early-2000s, I realized that "unclamping" the intellectual machinery of my prefrontal cortex also promoted "aimless mind wandering" in ways that helped me connect the dots of seemingly unrelated ideas and often led to spontaneous Aha! moments. (See "Superfluidity and the Synergy of Your Four Brain Hemispheres.")

Dynamic Thoughts and Artistic Cognition May Benefit From "Unclamping" the Frontal Cortex

In recent days, two new papers were published that help to advance our understanding of how alpha-powered mind wandering facilitates dynamic thoughts and the neural underpinnings of artistic cognition.

The first paper, "Distinct Electrophysiological Signatures of Task-Unrelated and Dynamic Thoughts," found that "enhanced frontal [cortex] alpha power was observed during freely moving thoughts compared with non-freely moving thoughts" and that "alpha-power variability was increased for task-unrelated, freely moving, and unconstrained thoughts."

This research was led by a team from UC Berkeley's Knight Lab. Their findings (Kam et al., 2021) were recently published online ahead of print in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lead author Julia Kam, along with senior author Robert Knight and their coauthors, used electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor brain activity while also tracking the flow of each study participant's internal thought processes. The researchers identified four types of thoughts: automatically constrained, deliberately constrained, freely moving, and task-unrelated.

"When study participants reported having thoughts that moved freely from topic to topic, they showed increased alpha wave activity in the brain's frontal cortex, a pattern linked to the generation of creative ideas," the authors explain in a Jan. 18, 2021 news release. The researchers also speculate that "allowing our internal thoughts to move freely and creatively are a necessary function of the brain and can promote relaxation and exploration."

"For the first time, we have neurophysiological evidence that distinguishes different patterns of internal thought, allowing us to understand the varieties of thought central to human cognition and to compare between healthy and disordered thinking," Robert Knight, psychology and neuroscience professor and founder of the Knight Lab, added.

Another co-author of this study, Zachary Irving, who is currently an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, created a mind-wandering philosophical theory as a postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley; this theory shaped the methodology of Kam et al.'s recent study.

"If you focus all the time on your goals, you can miss important information. And so, having a free-association thought process that randomly generates memories and imaginative experiences can lead you to new ideas and insights," Irving said in the news release.

"The ability to detect our thought patterns through brain activity is an important step toward generating potential strategies for regulating how our thoughts unfold over time, a strategy useful for healthy and disordered minds alike," Kam concluded.

The second paper, "How Do Competitive Neurocognitive Processes Contribute to Artistic Cognition? – The Andras-Effect" (Schipper, Janacsek, & Nemeth, 2020), was recently published online by The MIT Press's journal Leonardo. This review of previous studies by a team of brain scientists from the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center in France investigated the neural underpinnings and thinking processes behind "artistic cognition."

"In effect, artistic creation requires a combination of a number of different cognitive processes (attention, planning, executive functions, cognitive flexibility, memory recollection, implicit knowledge, etc.) that are carried out by different interactive neural circuits," the authors explain. "These defined, separate cognitive functions have been well studied within the scientific community, such that inferences regarding how these might apply to creativity can now be made."

In the Jan. 18, 2021 feature article for Medical Xpress by Ingrid Fadelli, the authors describe a new hypothetical framework they call "The Andras Effect," which posits that "neural processes related to intuition" and "the human ability to understand or examine something instinctively, without consciously reasoning about it" are key to artistic cognition.

A co-author of this study, Dezso Nemeth, told Medical Xpress:

"Our paper is a theoretical investigation in which we connected the results of past empirical studies in cognitive neuroscience, particularly those focusing on artistic cognition. Ultimately, we sought to explain the role of implicit learning processes in artistic cognition, or how the competition between different brain networks can lead to a more effective artistic intuition."

When it comes to optimizing artistic cognition, Schipper, Janacsek, & Nemeth's Andras effect theoretical model suggests that "less is more." As Fadelli explains:

"More specifically, they suggested that 'weaker' prefrontal circuits, which are related to executive functions (i.e., cognitive processes that allow humans to control their behavior and focus on a task at hand, such as working memory and flexible thinking), can actually lead to more effective artistic cognition."

Taken together, the latest research (2021) on artistic cognition and dynamic thoughts reaffirms what William James recommended over a century ago when he wrote "The Gospel of Relaxation." If you want to increase free-flowing thoughts and artistic intuition, it seems well advised to "Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free."


Julia W. Y. Kam, Zachary C. Irving, Caitlin Mills, Shawn Patel, Alison Gopnik, and Robert T. Knight. "Distinct Electrophysiological Signatures of Task-Unrelated and Dynamic Thoughts." PNAS (First published: January 26, 2021) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2011796118

Kate Schipper, Karolina Janacsek and Dezso Nemeth. "How Do Competitive Neurocognitive Processes Contribute to Artistic Cognition? – The Andras-Effect." Leonardo (First published online: December 04, 2020) DOI: 10.1162/leon_a_02007