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Marshmallow Men and One-Hit Wonders

Things that go "pop" in the mind

"brain anatomy medical head skull digital 3 d x ray xray psychedelic 6343 x3171" by John Voo / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Source: "brain anatomy medical head skull digital 3 d x ray xray psychedelic 6343 x3171" by John Voo / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In the original 1984 Ghostbusters, Dan Aykroyd’s character Ray Stantz unwittingly invokes “the destructor” by thinking of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man instead of clearing his mind as he has been instructed to do. When Bill Murray’s character Peter Venkman chides Ray for his mental carelessness, Ray explains, “I couldn’t help it. It just popped in there.” While it is unlikely that any of us has ever inadvertently summoned an apocalyptic marshmallow creature into existence, most of us are familiar with the experience of a stray random thought or image popping into our heads seemingly out of nowhere. A few days ago, for instance, as I was heaving a 50-pound bag of dog food out of the trunk of my car, the title of a Somerset Maugham novel, The Moon and Sixpence, spontaneously flickered before my mind’s eye. On another occasion, I was four miles into a six-mile run when the image of the cartoon character Fred Flintstone suddenly materialized in my head.

Such stray snippets of free-floating information as I have experienced on these and other occasions have always struck me as matters of amusement and curiosity, but some psychologists and neuroscientists have lately begun to view them as the subject of serious research.

A pioneering study of the phenomenon in 2004, and a more recent one in 2015, showed that “involuntary semantic memories,” or more colloquially “mind pops,” occur with a fair degree of regularity as a part of people’s everyday lives. Defined as “the involuntary occurrence of brief items in one’s network of semantic knowledge,” involuntary semantic memories are not to be confused with the more familiar—and more thoroughly researched—memory phenomenon “involuntary autobiographical memories” (or IAMs). If, for example, you catch a whiff of candle smoke and are suddenly transported back to your fifth birthday party, you have experienced an involuntary autobiographical memory. If, on the other hand, you are brushing your teeth and the quadratic formula pops into your head, it is an involuntary semantic memory that you have had.

Because of their seeming lack of relevance to the immediate context in which they occur, involuntary semantic memories might strike us as meaningless bits of cognitive flotsam drifting briefly to the surface of our consciousness before disappearing once again into the depths from which they emerged. And while it is true that, compared to IAMs, for which triggers are identifiable approximately 80% of the time, mind pops often seem completely random and spontaneous, a little introspective detective work can quite often track down a specific trigger. In the case of my Moon and Sixpence visitation, I unearthed the trigger when I later returned to the supermarket where I buy dog food and heard the song “Kiss Me,” by the 1990s one-hit-wonder Sixpence None the Richer, playing on the store’s canned music loop. Even though I had not been consciously aware of it, the song had likely been playing when I had bought dog food in the store several days earlier, and lifting the bag from the trunk had triggered the memory of hearing the song on the dog food aisle of the store. The unusual name of the artist had in turn triggered a memory of the Maugham title. (As for the image of Fred Flintstone… alas, I’ve had no luck tracking that one down.)

The subtle, elusive connection between involuntary semantic memories and their triggers is suggestive of a potential benefit of mind-popping. Researchers speculate that mind pops are the result of long-term semantic priming, with an initial exposure to a source of information (hearing “Kiss Me” in the supermarket) activating a web of representations in the mind that stay activated until a relevant stimulus in our environment (lifting the dog food out of the trunk) 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. Indeed, the 2015 study included creativity tests measuring “fluency, flexibility and originality” and found a positive correlation between mid-popping and creativity scores. People who experience a higher than average frequency of mind-pops—“super-primers”—may be especially creative because they can perceive conceptual relations in their world that other people miss.

Seeing the face of Fred Flintstone during a six-mile run doesn’t necessarily make one an Archimedes or an Einstein, but the possible connection between such seemingly random thoughts and the ability to see the world in ways that no one has ever seen it before suggests that we should all pay a little more attention when they pop into our heads.