Researchers create ‘fitness tracker’ for the mind

March 3, 2016 •

Ever caught yourself daydreaming of your next vacation or an old memory?  Do you wonder what your idle thoughts throughout the day actually mean?  If so, scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder have a free smartphone app that might help shed more light on how and why the mind wanders. 

The new “Where’s My Mind?” app, developed on campus by a team of researchers in CU-Boulder’s Institute of Cognitive Science and Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, periodically prompts smartphone users with questions about their thoughts at random moments during the day.  Users are asked to characterize whatever is in their head, as well as their overall mood and level of focus on the task at hand.

“We’ve had an interest in studying the psychology of internal thought for quite a while,” said Jessica Andrews-Hanna, director of the Neuroscience of Thought and Emotion Lab at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Cognitive Science.  “Internal thoughts are important because they can be the source of inspiration, happiness or planning, but can also fuel anxiety and stress. Little research has been done in this area thus far.”

While most psychology research focuses on studying thoughts while a person performs a conscious task or recalls a particular memory, the goal of this app is to be more spontaneous and tap into the seemingly inconsequential wanderings of the brain throughout the day.

Akin to a fitness tracker for the mind, the app periodically logs the user’s thoughts and feelings over the course of weeks and months, allowing them to see long-term patterns in their own thinking and quantify how often their mind wanders during a given period.

The app is just one component of a larger research project designed to compile data on mind wandering—information that might eventually help researchers better understand the underlying mechanisms of helpful and unhelpful forms of mind wandering.

“We are keeping track of how people respond to the app in their everyday lives, which allows us to establish norms and baselines that could prove extremely useful,” said Joanna Arch, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder.

The resulting data set could provide a starting point for future studies on the content, the emotions and the temporal (i.e. how often people think of the past, the present or the future) components of internal thought.

“Aside from the anticipated benefits to the user and the field of psychology, we think this app will be exciting to CU-Boulder and CU's alumni because, to our knowledge, it's one of CU's first university-supported research apps,” said Andrews-Hanna.

Along with Sarel Van Vuuren, an associate research professor, and Nattawut Ngampatipatpong, a Senior Professional Research Assistant in ICS’s Interactive Assistance Lab, the team worked with CU's Office of Industry Collaboration and the Technology Transfer Office to get the app published in the Google Play Store.

The app is currently available to download on Android platforms and an Apple iOS edition is in the works for the future.

This research is being supported by the Templeton Foundation and the Brain and Behavioral Research Foundation.