Mind-pop: why words, songs or past events suddenly pop up in our mind

Lia was making a cup of tea when suddenly the word ‘hurdle’ popped up in her mind. As a non-native English speaker she was confused about the meaning and looked it up in the dictionary. Moments before this, she stopped working because she could not remember something important she needed for her work. She realized the mind-pop ‘hurdle’ described her situation perfectly. Although she could not remember it, she concluded she must have looked up the meaning before.

Is this mind-pop a coincidence?
There is a big chance that you have experienced a similar situation in the past.

While most of us conclude the mind-pop was so random that this just might have been a brain hiccup, Lia went on to study the phenomenon. Lia Kvavilashvili, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, has been studying mind-pops since 1995.

• She found that mind-pops happen the most when the mind is free to wander and is not preoccupied.

o At least 90 percent of the mind-pops occurred when alone
o At least 80 percent happened during routines and simple activities, such as doing dishes or walking home.

• She found that mind-pops are not random

Mind-pops are experienced in the recent past. Mind-pops can be explained by the phenomenon of ‘spreading activation’. Words, concepts and sounds are interconnected in tree networks in the brain (the semantic, lexical and phonological). When activating one; other linked elements are activated as well. These may stay activated for hours or even days. When you come across an environmental trigger later on, a memory may be activated while this feels as if it’s coming out of the blue.
For example, when you eat pizza for dinner and the next day a friend is talking about an Italian movie, a word like ‘calzone’ may pop up in your mind.

Beside words popping up (semantic), people also experience involuntary memories of past events (autobiographical) or songs (musical).

Have you ever experienced a mind-pop yourself?