Mind Pops: Memories From Out of the Blue

Out to dinner recently, a friend and I were discussing an organization whose name implies one thing, when in actuality, what they promote is entirely the opposite.  We both racked our brains to come up with the name of that organization with no success.   Days later, without any recent thought of the elusive name – the words Discovery Institute sprung forward in my mind.  It was a spontaneous and surprising recall that brought me relief and pleasure.  “Ah Ha!  That’s what we were trying to remember the other night.  Yes!” I said to myself.   These types of memories are called Mind Pops.


They are also referred to as involuntary semantic memories.  As was the case in my example, they are completely involuntary in that this type of recall occurs without any current conscious, active thought.  In the more scholarly term (involuntary semantic memories), the word semantic suggests that the relevant recall springs forth from one’s semantic knowledge – for example, most commonly the item recalled is a word, phrase, image, melody, or a proper name that one has learned or has previously been exposed to.  These recall events pop into conscious thought  (i.e.,  your “mind“), without current conscious active pursuit – thus the origin of the more compelling descriptor Mind Pops.


These memory events are a relatively new topic of research revealing, as was the case in my example, that such events are not always truly random.  Although the memory may be irrelevant at the exact moment that it pops into awareness, they usually are linked to one’s past experiences.  Sometimes they occur with no conscious awareness of the the trigger itself.   In my example, there was an event that consciously set the stage for my Mind Pop (i.e., striving to recall the Discovery Institute), but some Mind Pops are more mysterious.


Kvavilashvili and her colleague George Mandler, propose that “the completely out of the blue” Mind Pops are often explained by “long-term priming.” Priming itself is an interesting topic, but essentially it is a phenomena whereby your behavior can be altered by exposure to stimuli that enters your unconscious (implicit) memory.  Research has demonstrated that people can be primed to be more polite and patient if unwittingly exposed to words in an unrelated task that lists concepts associated with being polite and patient.   People will walk more slowly if they are implicitly primed with words associated with the elderly.  Furthermore, recall of trivia is better if people are asked to think about the role of being a college professor before being asked the trivia questions relative to folks asked to first think about being a soccer hooligan (with other variables held constant).


This unconscious priming sets the stage for these mysterious out of the blue Mind Pops.  Subconscious exposure to an image, a word, a song, or a scene serves as the trigger for later Popping.  As the word subconscious implies, the exposure occurs completely outside of conscious awareness.  When Kvavilashvili and Mandler asked subjects to journal their Mind Pops, there were numerous examples where the Pops had no clear, or very subtle, triggers.   “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish and chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.”  Kvavilashvili noted that “I got curious about [Mind Pops] because they seemed so random and out of the blue, but these mind pops are genuine fragments of knowledge about the world. What it shows us is that our subconscious often knows the meaning of an experience, even if consciously we don’t.


Researchers like Dr. Lia Kvavilashvili are finding that Mind Pops are quite common.  I’m sure that  you have likely experienced such events yourself.  Kvavilashvili suggests that they are most often words or phrases rather than images or sounds and that they usually occur in the midst of some routine activity such as engaging self care.  In other words, they are most likely to occur when your mind is not focused on the task at hand and is free to wander.  A variant of this phenomena is the Tip of the Tongue (TOT) experience – where you may be struggling to remember a name or a word and it feels as though it is right on the tip of your tongue; yet, you just can’t spit it out.  Then later, when you have stopped actively pursuing it, the word surfaces.  That letting go of pursuit allows your implicit (unconscious) memory do its work.


Although almost everyone experiences Mind Pops, there seems to be an increased frequency of Mind Popping in individuals with mental health issues.  Researchers Keith Laws, Lia Kvavilashvili, and Ia Elua, conducted some preliminary research whereby they compared the frequency of Mind Pops in 37 individuals with schizophrenia, 31 people with depression, and 26 individuals with no mental health issues.  On average, individuals with Schizophrenia reported 3-4 Mind Pops a weeks, while individuals with depression reported 1-2 a month, and healthy individuals reported 1-2 every six months.  Invasive thoughts that bleed through consciousness are indeed some of the prominent features of schizophrenia and depression, so these categorical differences do make sense.


In my personal correspondence with Dr. Kvavilashvili, she differentiated Mind Pops from the Involuntary Autobiographical Memories I described in a previous post titled The Guilt-Empathy Connection.  In that post I discussed a similar phenomena whereby “serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past.  A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly.  And all of this occurs outside of conscious control.  For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible.  The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.”  Dr. Kvavilashvili noted that there seem to be “personality and individual difference variables at play” in my type of guilt based Involuntary Autobiographical Memories.


In a cursory review of the literature, I did come across a study by Dr. Dorthe Berntsen and she wrote that “The involuntary [autobiographical] memories more frequently referred to specific episodes, came with more physical reaction, had more impact on mood, and dealt with more unusual and less positive events.”  This coincides with my anecdotal experiences (for whatever that is worth).  For me, these events were indeed outliers, they were negative and viscerally so, and they did significantly affect my mood.  Mind Pops are quite different from such Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in that the Pops are more semantic in nature (rather than biographical or experiential), and the Pops tend to be more positively experienced.


Although Mind Pops and Involuntary Autobiographical Memories are commonplace, they certainly constitute manifestations of our amazing and incredibly complex brain.  Please share your interesting Mind Pops or Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in the Comments section below so that you can showcase the amazing capabilities of your brain.  And when you have one of those “out of the blue” Mind Pops look deep to find the source of the subconscious trigger – you might be amazed by your inattentional blindness or the vastness of what your mind’s eye takes in beyond what you see.




Berntsen, D., and Hall, N. M., (2004).  The episodic nature of involuntary autobiographical memories. Memory & Cognition. Jul; 32(5): 789-803.


Cowen, Mark, (2012).  ‘Mind-pop’ frequency increased in schizophrenia patients.  MedWire News.com


Guild, G. (2010).  Are You a Robot? can I Program Your Responses?  How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com


Guild, G. (2012).  The Guilt – Empathy Connection.  How Do You Think? http://geraldguild.com


Elua, I., Laws, K., and Kvavilashvili, L.. (2012). From mind-pops to hallucinations? A study of involuntary semantic memories in schizophrenia.  Psychiatry Research. V. 196 (2), Pgs. 165-170.


Jbar, Ferris, (2012). Mind-Pops: Psychologists Begin to Study an Unusual form of Proustian Memory.  Scientific American.com


Kvavilashvilia, L., and Mandler, G. (2003). Out of one’s mind: A study of involuntary semantic memories.  Paper shared by author in personal correspondence.


Science Daily (2012). Mind-Pops More Likely With Schizophrenia.  ScienceDaily.com




  1. These mind pops remind me of addiction, I have had 2 years sober of any kind of drug, but every once in awhile I would like a drink, just to take the edge off, now I know damn well I cant becouse I will drink way more than one, and I guess this is normal of the brain disease of addiction. Im probably way off on what your article is, but I can so relate to it as to what happens to me, out of know where!!! Our brains are truely amazing! I have retrained mine in more ways than one, amazing how deeply engrained those road maps can become!! take care

  2. Thanks Marilyn and congratulations on two years of sobriety. I have not read about a connection between Mind Pops or even Involuntary Autobiographical Memories and addiction; however, I am guessing that priming plays a role in the spontaneous thoughts that endanger your sobriety. Particular settings, atmospheres, smells, visual cues, social contexts, among other stimuli, can and do trigger both conscious and subconscious desires. I am reminded of a recent post I wrote about the brain and its components related to cravings and rewards – namely: Freud: In Some Ways He Was Right. In it I wrote:

    “…there are brain regions that do wage contentious battles for control over your behaviors. Across time, different modules assert greater amounts of control than others, and thus, the choices we make, do likewise vary in terms of quality. As a result of advances in technology and understanding, we are becoming increasingly aware of the key factors associated with this variation.

    One of the centers that play out in our multi-component brain is the dopamine reward pathway. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that serves a number of important functions in the brain. One of its most significant roles plays out as a result of activation of the Nucleus Accumbens (NAcc). When the NAcc is activated it floods the brain with dopamine and we experience pleasure. Desire for an item activates the NAcc. Being in the presence of the desired item activates it further. The greater the arousal of the NAcc the more pleasure we experience. It is your NAcc that is responsible for the happiness you feel when you both anticipate and eat those fries or that steak or buy that new coat. It is also responsible for that rush you feel when your team wins the big game (Lehrer, 2009).

    Then there is the Insula – a brain region that produces, among other sensations, unpleasantness. This center “lights up” in brain scans when people feel pain, anticipate pain, empathize with others, see disgust on someone’s face, are shunned in a social settings, or decide not to buy an item. In many cases we avoid exciting the Insula as it is the system that produces the unpleasantness of caffeine or nicotine withdrawal and the negative feelings associated with spending money (Blakslee, 2007; Lehrer, 2009). When you are jonesing for that coffee or nicotine fix, it is your Insula that is making you feel badly – necessarily compelling you to feed the habit. And when you satisfy the craving it is your NAcc that gives you that Ahhhhh! – that sense of well being.

    Perhaps the NAcc is Freud’s Id and the Insula Freud’s Superego? It is actually much more complicated than this, but the overlap is interesting.

    Neuroscientists now know that the OrbitoFrontal Cortex (OFC) is the brain center that integrates a multitude of information from various brain regions along with visceral emotions in an attempt to facilitate adaptive decision making. Current neuroimaging evidence suggests that the OFC is involved in monitoring, learning, as well as the memorization of the potency of both reinforcers and punishers. It analyzes the available options, and communicates its decisions by creating emotions that are supposed to help you make decisions. Next time you are faced with a difficult decision, and you experience an associated emotion – this is the result of your OFC’s attempt to tell you what to do. Such feelings actually guide most of our decisions without us even knowing that it is happening.

    The OFC operates outside your awareness: opaquely communicating with your rational decision making center using the language of feelings. Our rational center, the Prefrontal Cortex, the more apt Freudian Ego analogy, is not as predominant as he suggested. In fact, it is limited in capacity – both easily fatigued and overly taxed. See my post on Willpower for a deeper discussion of this issue.

    So, as crazed as we view Freud’s notions today, there were some aspects of his explanation of human behavior that were rooted in actual brain systems. As I previously noted, these systems are much more complicated than I have described above, but in essence, there are battles waged in your head between forces that manipulate you and your choices through the use of chemical neurotransmitters. A portion of these battles occur outside your awareness, but it is the influence of the emotions that stem from these unconscious battles that ultimately make you feel as though there is a Devil (Id) on one shoulder and an angel (Superego) on the other as your Prefrontal Cortex (Ego) struggles to make the best possible decision.

    I often feel this way, like there are two minds inside my brain – one tugging me toward more pleasurable and immediate “rewards” and another that has longer term interests at heart. Immediacy and potency are often the most powerful forces – thus making ingrained habits very tough to break.

    By understanding these systems you may become empowered to make better decisions, avoid bad choices, and ultimately take more personal responsibility for the process. It’s not the Devil that made you do it, and it’s not poor Ego Strength – necessitating years of psychotherapy. It is the influence of deeply stirred emotions and manipulation occurring inside of you and perhaps some over dependence on a vulnerable and easily over burdened Prefrontal Cortex that leads you down that gluttonous path.

    Again, thanks for your comment – I hope this understanding helps you in your endeavors to tame the inner beast that sometimes pops into your awareness “out of the blue” and says “feed me dammit!”

    Best wishes and warm regards.

  3. A recent Opinion piece in the New York Times discusses the phenomena of priming and poses questions regarding the lack of replication of the priming effect by subsequent researchers. Science, at its core, demands independent confirmation of results before the widespread adoption/acceptance of such earth shaking results. Failure to replicate suggests that the previous results may be attributable to confounding variables or experimental error. Lack of replication, the author of this opinion suggests, puts the priming effect in a dubious column. As Carl Sagan was fond of saying “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” We must therefore be skeptical about the implications of priming.

  4. Another more thorough review of Bargh the man and his work on priming.

  5. Four months back i had a panic attack, a week after the attack i experienced a mind pop. My mind involuntarily recalled my maternal uncle. It was weird. Since then the frequency of it has really gone up. i experience ten- twenty mind pops in day. They are generally from my activities from the recent past.
    I went to doctor and i was told that it could be related to OCD. Not sure what is going on?

  6. Greetings Ojashwi,
    Thank you for sharing your recent Mind Popping experiences. I too really don’t know “what is going on.” I’m not sure you will find anyone who really does. There is surprisingly little known about these events and/or the associated neurological/psychological features. One could jump to conclusions about the increased frequency of Popping and your recent panic attack, but it may be just a coincidence, or they both may be secondary to another trigger. As I noted in my post, there does seem to be an increased frequency of Popping in those with mental health issues, but it is a correlation (an association) at this point. No one can really say that increased Popping is caused by depression or OCD, or by any other condition. You should get help if your Pops are distressing or causing other problems (I cannot provide you with any professional advice nor should you interpret anything I say as such). But, please let me know if you learn anything more about your Popping. I am very curious about this phenomena.
    Warmest regards and best wishes,

  7. Pingback:2013 – A Year in Review: How Do You Think? - How Do You Think?

  8. Hi Gerald, thanks for the article. I just discovered the name of this phenomenon today, via this article and one by LK. I have noticed an increase in my experience of mind-pops, and probably is correlated with alot of long distance walking i do (almost daily) in which my mind is free to wander wherever it so desires. Although I didn’t know this was an actual named phenomenon, i realised that often there was a trigger in the local environment, and so whenever I get it now (maybe once a week) I make sure to stop walking and have a good look around at signage, etc. There have been some truly remarkable ones where I think to myself ‘suuuuurely there are no signs that say [whatever word popped into my head]’ but indeed I find it written somewhere. But I don’t always find the trigger. I am now keen on keeping a journal, and trying to deduce some commonalities. One thing I love is how compelling the feeling is, of having the word pop into my head and just knowing that it is probably in my immediate environment. It happens often when browsing book shelves too. I am interested in using mind-pops as a tool in art (I am a sound artist), whereby I can implant words (and therefore the meaning of the work) into the audience’ minds, with that same compelling feeling associated with mindpops.

  9. Hi Christopher,
    Thank you for adding your anecdotes and ideas on mind pops. I am intrigued as to whether you could use art to prime pops. Random and unconscious exposure to a stimuli can trigger pops, so why not. I wonder how discrete one would have to be to accomplish this? As in priming, I hypothesize that if you are too explicit in your efforts, you will not get the intended outcome. Another challenge will likely be the latency between the prime and the pop. It could be hours or days between the stimulus and the response. This delay may be irrelevant; but, wouldn’t it be cool though, if you could spontaneously trigger pops in the context you desire as an artist . That would be so powerful!
    Best wishes! Keep me posted on your efforts!

  10. Lia Kvavilashvili’s work on what she describes as ‘mind-pops’ or involuntary semantic memories’ mostly deals with words that pop into conscious thought unexpectedly, but also discusses melodies and visual images. The latter, while acknowledged, is not discussed in depth but this is the area I, as an artist, am principally interested in.
    Kvavilashvilli appears to favour the ideas that mind pops are
    1. memories
    2. primed
    My experience challenges both of these ideas, so I hypothesise that these two ideas represent, at least in the case of images, an incomplete explanation.
    For example, an image of a tree popped into my mind. It was not a memory of tree that had been seen since this tree could not exist – it had large, multi-coloured leaves that are impossible in nature. For sure the concept of a tree, it’s general shape (like a young weeping willow tree) and the existence of leaves, are features that are located in semantic memory, but the image that popped up is a combination of form and colour that has not previously existed. The brain has created a new reality.
    A second example is an image of a sculpture. Its form has not been previously encountered so cannot have been a memory. It was composed of some hard material, perhaps concrete or stone, and comprises to spheres of about a metre diameter that have been merged so that the centre of one lies within the volume of the other and then segments of each of the overlapping spheres have been cut away revealing the internal structure to the centre. The result is reminiscent of diagrams that show the internal geological structure of planet Earth so that aspect will be within semantic memory, as will be the nature of concrete or stone and the idea of sculpture. The combination of these memories to produce the popped-up image is, however, novel and so represents an involuntary act of creativity.
    In both examples it is hard to see how priming could be involved. Trees and sculptures are regular features of experience but anything that relates more closely to the images has not been identified. The non-requirement of priming is a simpler explanation than a theory that priming must occur when the evidence is scant.
    I have used the two examples above, and others, as the central features in paintings that perhaps fall into the genre of surrealism.

  11. Not sure if it’s a Mind Pop, but fir the last 2 months my brain has been repeating a word to itself, quietly, like its whispering to me. I know what it says. It says Jodrell Bank, which is a large telescope in the North of England. I’ve never been there but I think I have driven past it some years ago.
    I can be washing the dishes or driving to work or in the shower and out of nowhere my brain will say ‘Jodrell bank’ over and over.
    The fantasist in me would love this to be an amazing contact from my late father, and while I keep an open mind I am not convinced enough to make the 4-5hr drive up there.
    But today it happened again and I thought I’d Google it. Any ideas?
    Ps: I’m not a crazy person!

  12. Janie,
    I’ve been thinking about your question. Very interesting! I wonder if you are being persistently “primed” in some way? There has been much in the news of late about space missions (e.g., OSIRIS-REX, Rosetta) and telescopes (e.g., the controversy in Hawaii about the TMT), etc. Perhaps that, and the time of year (if relevant) bring unconscious thoughts of your farther that are manifested as Jodrell Bank mind pops. Who knows? Think about the general priming factors relevant to the pop, as well as environmental contributors (e.g., time of year of your father’s birthday or death). I’m speculating. Due to the vagaries of the human brain and the inaccessibility of the unconscious, we may never understand it. Regardless, perhaps a trip up north is warranted. Thank you for leaving a comment!
    Warmest regards,

  13. How very interesting to read about the phenomena “mind pops”! I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but first today I sat down to google it. Personally I’ve been wondering if it also can refer to tones and music. E.g. if I stand and do the dish wash the word “butterfly” pops up in my brain. May the reason perhaps be that something around me made a sound like “tap-tap-tap”? Just something I’ll be thinking about next time I’ll have a ‘mind pop’ … P.S: I’m a very musical person.

  14. For my entire adult life I have been “mind travelling”. I can be cutting onions in the kitchen when suddenly my mind “jumps” to drinking coffee at a coffee shop in Oaxaca. I am endlessly travelling. Walking down the street in Merida, Mexico and passing the Mormon temple. A certain smell takes me to the restroom of a certain 5 star hotel in Sri Lanka 40 years ago.
    Perhaps this could be seen as merely reminiscing but the extent that it happens, the randomness that these experiences occur, the lack of apparent triggers for these “snapshots “ and the almost exclusively positiveness of these experiences (I naver flash on being arrested in Las Vegas 55 years ago) makes me thoroughly enjoy my “mind travel” moments and feel that they add a layer of richness to my life.
    As to whether these experiences can be considered “mind pops” or not, I have no idea

  15. Rob, so sorry for the response latency. I have to say that I am indeed jealous of the exclusive positivity of your autobiographical memories. I’m sure there is confirmation bias implicit in my recall of my own such memories, but as I recall, they are seemingly heavily skewed toward my own screw-ups – thus negative in nature. And that seems more common. I know what you mean by memory time travel triggered by innocuous stimuli however because I too am taken back to past places associate with a particular song or a smell.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *