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A psychological twist on the news.

Letting Your Mind Wander

What are the pros and cons of mind-wandering?

I was trying to daydream but my mind kept wandering.  Steven Wright

What is mind-wandering?  And is it always such a bad thing?   No matter how hard you try paying attention on what you’re doing,  your mind is going to drift.   Whether driving on the highway, writing an essay, or sitting in class, we seem constitutionally incapable of keeping our mind on the here and now, at least not for very long.   According to some studies, as much as 50% of our waking hours are spent in some form of mind-wandering whether we want to or not.   Certainly that much mind-wandering can have an adverse effect on our performance, and perhaps even our personal safety when not paying attention to a potentially dangerous task.   If nothing else, mind-wandering can be personally embarrassing since we all have painful experiences of being caught out mind-wandering instead of paying attention to what we were supposed to be doing.   (I had a particular problem with this in grade school, make of that what you will).

A recent overview on research into mind-wandering has just been published in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology.  The authors, Benjamin W. Mooneyham and Jonathan W. Schooler of the University of California at Santa Barbara discuss the costs involved with mind-wandering and how it affects performance on different cognitive tasks.   They also discuss whether mind-wandering may be far more beneficial that we assume though this may be hard to accept considering the adverse effects that have been demonstrated by researchers. 

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In reading tasks for instance, mind wandering frequency is directly related to poor reading comprehension, not to mention how much of the material read is actually remembered afterward.    Measuring this relationship usually involves tests of reading comprehension as well as direct measurement of eye gaze and reading time.  By any measure used, children prone to mind wandering perform much more poorly and may even lead to their being diagnosed with an attention disorder.   The same relationship applies to other cognitive tasks measuring attention span, selective attention, and  problem-solving.  

One of the biggest controversies about mind-wandering is how it relates to working memory.  Though some researchers argue that mind-wandering is directly linked to working memory and occurs more frequently when we are using working memory continuously, others argue that working memory is more important in ending mind-wandering and getting us back to what we were doing.     However the controversy plays out (and arguments can be made both ways), there seems to be no question that mind-wandering has a strong negative effect on tests of working memory, and even on measures of general intelligence or aptitude.

Strangely enough, though mind-wandering seems to result from feeling bored or unmotivated, it does little to relieve that boredom and may even make us more unhappy or depressed than ever.  While there seems to be a “chicken-egg” argument that can be made over the relationship between mind-wandering and depressed mood,  a 2010 study by two Harvard researchers has clearly demonstrated that mind-wandering itself can lead to greater unhappiness rather than vice-versa.   

Those are the negative aspects associated with mind-wandering, but how about the positive ones?    According to Mooneyham and Schooler, the very fact that it exists at all and takes up so much of our waking hours strongly suggests that mind-wandering can be beneficial under the right circumstances.    Whether you call it mind-wandering, day-dreaming or “mental time travel”, the evidence for a positive role seems to be supported by recent research.   This is especially true if you consider that there may be different kinds of mind-wandering that can be constructive or destructive depending on how and when it is used. 

Among the different functional roles for mind-wandering discussed in the Mooneyham and Schooler article are:

  • Future thinking -  A lot of the thinking occurring during mind-wandering tends to focus on future events.   Essentially, we use mind-wandering to anticipate and plan out future goals and rehearse all the different ways those future goals can go wrong.   Though it can get in the way of how we perform in the here and now, being able to anticipate future problems can be an important trade-off.   Since mind-wandering usually happens during tedious tasks which don’t require that much mental activity, pondering future events may have an important evolutionary advantage.   Research showing that people with higher working memory scores are more likely to mind-wander about the future instead of the past may bear this out.
  • Creative thinking – The history of science is filled with examples of scientists making their most famous discoveries while mind-wandering.   Remember Archimedes in his bathtub?  Or Isaac Newton and the apple tree?  Granted, those stories are likely fictional but they highlight the way answers to complex problems seem to “appear” out of thin air after previous attempts to solve them failed.   The modern psychological term for this is incubation, or the unconscious recombination of thought processes after they are stimulated by mental activity allowing the solution to “pop up” at a later time.  Incubation usually happens after we set aside a strenuous mental task and devote our attention to a less demanding task instead, i.e., exactly the sort of task likely to trigger mind-wandering.   Basically, that suggests that mind-wandering and creative problem-solving are strongly linked though it does not necessarily make people more creative overall.
  • Attentional cycling- Mind-wandering may be a good way to multi-task by taking advantage of free time during undemanding tasks to focus on other problems we might be facing.  By cycling through different problems, we can keep them all fresh in our mind makig them easier to deal with.
  • Disinhabituation -  Spending too much time on a task can make us too tired to give our full attention to what we are working on  and make us less likely to respond properly.  The psychological term for this is habituation and can make responding to a monotonous task much harder than it needs to be.   Brief periods of mind-wandering can make us return to the task feeling a little more refreshed due to disinhabituation that lets us “recharge our batteries.”
  • Relief From Boredom -  Boredom can be a terrible feeling, especially when we’re been working on a task or situation that fails to excite us.  Whether the task is boring in itself or simply becomes boring due to frequent repetition, a little mind-wandering makes working on these tasks a little more bearable.   While rest breaks are important in any regular routine, taking a break whenever you get bored is simply not an option, especially for “clock watchers” who are required to keep working or who can’t interrupt what they are doing.  Brief episodes of mind-wandering can be an important survival mechanism to get through the day and move on to something more challenging.   Boring tasks also seem to take longer than they really do (remember how “a watched pot never boils”?).   Mind-wandering lets you “speed up” how time seems to pass so those boring tasks go more quickly.

So, why do we spend so much time mind-wandering?  Though letting our minds wander too often can certainly be destructive, there are positive advantages as well.   That virtually everyone engages in mind-wandering on a regular basis suggests that it is more important than researchers have realized up to now.  Most research has focused on the disadvantages of mind-wandering in various cognitive tasks but  Benjamin W. Mooneyham and Jonathan W. Schooler have highlighted some of the positive benefits involved as well.   

In the end, like in most things, the key to successful mind-wandering is to strike a proper balance to take advantage of the benefits while being careful not to lose focus while doing critical tasks.  Finding that balance can be hard but learning to keep your mind focused using techniques such as mindfulness meditation can provide important dividends.  While mind-wandering has its advantages, too much of anything can be a bad thing.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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