Research by neuroscientists at the University of Sydney has shown that people living with frontotemporal dementia ­– a form of younger-onset dementia – lose the ability to daydream and have no inner monologue.

It is believed that those with healthy minds spend at least 50% of their waking lives daydreaming and allowing their mind to wander, and this train of internal thought has many positive benefits for overall mental health.

Introspective thinking and daydreaming allow a person to analyse their own behavior and the behaviors of others as they reflect on past events and plan for future events in their mind.

This type of thinking is one of the main catalysts for emotional and behavioral regulation and it is also associated with problem-solving skills and personal creativity.

Professor Muireann Irish, Associate Professor  Brain and Mind Centre and School of Psychology at the University of Sydney noticed many interesting things throughout the study, but even though the study was obviously informative, the findings did reveal an upsetting reality.

“Unfortunately, one of the things that we took from the study was just how sad these findings really are. Imagine not having the ability to daydream and escape the present moment. Imagine how limiting that is to a person,” said Professor Irish.

“I think most of us can take for granted just how important that aspect of your life is. Being able to stimulate your own interest and having the ability to plan for things is important to your health. And the fact that we all do it so much in our daily life actually proves that.”

The study included 35 individuals living with frontotemporal dementia, 24 individuals living with Alzheimer’s Disease, and 37 healthy order participants as part of the testing process.

Each participant was asked to view static images of very plain geometric shapes that presented on a computer screen and then asked to report any thoughts that arose throughout the tedious repetition of viewing these plain shapes.

“The task that we designed is something that is really conducive to mind wandering. So if you give this task to healthy older adults and younger individuals, the tendency is that people with healthy functioning minds can’t just stay focused on the shape because it’s so monotonous,” said Professor Irish.

“Within this group of test patients there was a particular group of patients who were living with frontotemporal dementia; and what was striking was that on this particular task, they didn’t generate any of this rich internal mind wandering or daydreaming.”

“So when they were performing the task –  they told us that they didn’t think of anything. Or they were just fixed on the stimulus directly in front of them.

It seems that these people become ‘stuck’ on something in their immediate environment and are unable to remove themselves from that by entering that internal world of thinking.”

“These individuals do not have the ability to escape from environments that lack stimulation, whereas you and I can mentally take ourselves away by thinking about things that are interesting us.”

As bleak of a reality as this may be, the insight gained through this research does explain a number of the characteristics and actions that people living with frontotemporal dementia can experience.

Individuals living with Frontotemporal dementia can also become very rigid in their thinking and unable to think of solutions to problems or deviate from routine, previous research also shows that their ability to remember the past or envision the future is also extremely compromised.

According to Professor Irish, the reasoning for this inability to internalise and explore thoughts is caused by issues that compromise the integrity of one certain area of the brain.

“These patients have a lot of damage or atrophy to their frontal cortex and that’s the part of the brain that allows us to switch between our external environment through to our internal thoughts to be introspective.”

“For a long time we observed the behaviors of people with frontotemporal dementia and found they do become very focused on immediate things in their environments and can get stuck on them in a sense, they can also have real difficulty regulating their impulses.”

While gaining new information regarding dementia is always exciting, the value of this research is maximised when this knowledge is utilised to innovate methods of care that ultimately improve the quality of life for those living with dementia.

And that was part of the motivation for Professor Irish and her colleagues from the University of Sydney.

“We wanted to make sure that our findings were relevant for the care of these patients,” she said.

“One of the things that we sometimes hear people say is that a person living with dementia is lost in their thoughts – this study definitely shows that this is not the case. These people are actually tethered to their environments.”

“One thing that this says to me is that we need to optimize the environment that people are living in and make sure that the environment gives them a purpose or some level of stimulation.”

“If you and I are bored, we can go anywhere in our minds, but these people can’t. Caring environments must have the capacity to be engaging.”

 

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