Research has shown that when we are in deep sleep, our brain activity moves in waves. A new study from Stanford University has found that a similar phenomenon also happens throughout the day.

So why did we know about brain waves during sleep, but not during the day? These newly-discovered daily movements are hard to detect because the waves don't move far beyond a neuron column, whereas in sleep, the wave moves across the whole brain, according to a news release from Stanford. "It's as if tiny portions of the brain are independently falling asleep and waking back up all the time," the release noted.

To reach these findings, researchers probed a region of the brain in monkeys which is responsible for detecting a particular section of the visual world. They also trained the monkeys to respond to a cue which indicated that something in that particular part of their visual field was going to change, according to Stanford.

Researchers found that when the monkeys anticipated a change and paid more attention to the visual area, neurons in the brain continued cycling through the on and off phases. They also tended to remain active for longer when the monkeys were paying attention.

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"The monkey is very good at detecting stimulus changes when neurons in that column are in the on state but not in the off state," said co-lead author Tatiana Engel in a news release from Stanford.

This means that our minds are more effective when our neurons are switched on, but the brain continues to switch neurons off.

"During an on state the neurons all start firing rapidly," said senior author on the paper, Kwabena Boahen, according to Medical XPress. "Then all of a sudden they just switch to a low firing rate. This on and off switching is happening all the time, as if the neurons are flipping a coin to decide if they are going to be on or off."

Engel said in the release that the finding could explain why it's possible to still miss information even when you think you're paying attention.

Source: Engel TA, Steinmetz MA, Gieselmann MA, Thiele A, Moore T. Selective modulation of cortical state during spatial attention. Science. 2016.

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