Why do we carry out six unimportant items but forget the Parmesan cheese we went to the shop for? Where was our mind then?
Over a 16-hour waking day, our minds wander off about 2,000 times. These thoughts that take our minds away are always unconnected with the task we are into or the situation we are in. In fact, we spend almost 50 percent of our waking hours being mindless.
Why did humans not evolve to be mindful all the time? Is there any good that we spend so much time letting our minds wander?
3 Benefits of Mind-Wandering or Mindlessness
Psychologists have discovered several helpful merits of mind-wandering. Here are the three most striking ones:
1. Mind-Wandering Can Boost Creativity
The common idea is mindfulness is the way to more creativity. Because being mindful makes you more diligent, attentive, smooth, and open to creative insights.
But there is a flip side. Mind-wandering can be constructive.
Experts believe there is a deep relationship between mind-wandering and creativity. There are hidden problems our brains are trying to solve when our minds wander off in the middle of an online class or meeting.
We mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory, or make sense of a troubling event.—Rebecca McMillan, founder of The Brain Cafe, and Scott Barry Kaufman, humanistic psychologist and host of The Psychology Podcast, in Frontiers.
Writers, artists, and composers create some of their best work during these moments of mind wandering. Inventors and scientists find many of their “Eureka” moments in these episodes of mental traveling.
Let us look deep and try to understand if mindlessness can spark creativity.
A 2012 study suggests taking a break to do something undemanding improved performance on a task that required creativity. This performance boost was much more as compared to when one took a break to do a challenging task, took some rest, or took no break.
Research shows self-generated thoughts are useful to the person having them, especially when they can control the experience to stay positive or productive. Experts believe exceptionally creative and inventive people have a high frequency of such useful self-generated thoughts as compared to normal people.
Is there a part of the brain that makes our minds wander and create mindless thoughts? An fMRI study looked at the brains of highly experienced mindfulness meditation practitioners. The researchers found specific brain areas play critical roles in generating mindless thoughts, mainly the medial temporal lobe (MTL) and hippocampus.
A truly creative individual is able to repeatedly generate such highly novel and useful thoughts.—Kieran Fox and Roger Beaty, 2018
2. Mindless Judgments Are Fast And Correct
Research shows we are unbelievably fast in making explicit judgments about others. We do that from our unconscious level and do it quite well.
A study by the maverick social scientist Rick van Baaren from the Radboud University of Nijmegen found when restaurant servers repeated the orders of their customers word-for-word (The Parrot Effect), they received tips 26 percent more frequently.
The simple repeating of the order sent out a subtle cue they could trust the server as she was carefully listening to them. That mirroring behavior or social mimicry led the customer to assume they are being valued. Now, even when they were not fully conscious about it, they paid the favor back in tips.
We like people better when they mimic our moods and gestures subtly and spontaneously. In fact, wordless behavior mimicry with no conscious awareness may occur during 30 percent or more of any interaction.
Such imitation—of gestures, finger movements, facial expressions, etc.—plays a role in empathy, affiliation, and rapport.— Chartrand and van Baaren, 2009
However, if you consciously try to copy a person gesture-for-gesture, they see a red flag—and feel cold.
In a study by the psychologists, a woman greeted the participants in a polite yet highly formal way. Sometime later, each participant received 10 photos. The woman came to each and asked what they saw in those photos, as she intentionally mimicked the participants.
And they felt the chills.
When asked what the room temperature might be, they said it was two-and-a-half times colder than when the same woman did not mimic them.
What happened there? Social mimicry is a sign of intimacy, as we know. But when people perceive mimicry in situations where they are not expecting intimacy, as from a formal person, it raises a threat. This hesitancy comes from our deeply wired survival instinct borne out of thousands of years of evolution.
In another study, the participants needed just one-tenth of a second to build first impressions about their target’s personality. Within that “thin slice” of time, only 100 milliseconds, they had judged whether their targets were trustworthy, open to new experiences, kind, careful, emotionally stable, or enthusiastic.
Now, the bigger “Wow!” part: the researcher psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov found these 0.1-second judgments were mostly right—especially in determining trustworthiness—up to around 70 percent.
… trustworthiness judgments showed the highest correlation. In hindsight, this finding is not surprising. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that detection of trustworthiness is essential for human survival.— Willis and Todorov, 2006
So, we are good at finding out within a split-second if a person is trustworthy. But we should not try too hard to come across as a friendly person. The forced intention gets seen through.
It is more authentic when our interactions with people outside our circle start out spontaneously and mindlessly.
3. Mindless Actions Save Time And Energy
Mindless actions are the things we do on auto-pilot, or as knee-jerk responses like snap decisions. Experts call these heuristics or “mental shortcuts” that allow us to make quick judgments without overthinking one course of action.
Heuristics, also called the “rule-of-thumb” approach, help us when we face time pressure to decide, or when we are in complicated situations and our attention is divided. They are not always right or most accurate, but save us a lot of time and mental energy.
Heuristic thinking is a state of mindlessness that spares our conscious brain from remaining continuously busy. Research suggests it can help us:
- decide fast whether we can trust people,
- become more productive and creative, and
- handle better the stresses of daily life.
In the 1970s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky carried out studies to test how people reached decisions. They often found people deviated from the rational model of decision making. These participants used heuristics to make fast decisions with less effort to get positive results much of the time.
The opposite of heuristics is taking the algorithmic or “fail-safe” steps to solve a problem.
What Do We Mean By Mind-Wandering
Mind-wandering means having self-generated thoughts unrelated to the present task or surroundings. It is a state of daydreaming, absent-mindedness, auto-pilot, or mindlessness.
When the mind wanders, one withdraws attention from their immediate environment and turns it inward to a stream of thoughts related to their current concerns (Klinger, 1999). There is often a loss of perceptual contact with the outer world, called perceptual decoupling, and no awareness of the current focus of one’s attention, called loss of meta-awareness (Schooler et al., 2011).
In contrast, mindfulness is a focused observation of what is happening in the present moment without any judgment. Research shows mindfulness training can increase working memory and improve our performance on standardized tests (Mrazek, Franklin, Phillips, Baird, & Schooler, 2013).
Mind-wandering and multitasking are the opposite of mindfulness. And it is the most common cause to disrupt our mindfulness sessions.
We all slip into the set-patterns of mind and body, so much so that most of the time we are not fully present in our own lives. Which means, we are doing one thing, and our minds are someplace else.
Why does it happen?
Have you ever realized that attempting to stay peaceful and relaxed just before an extremely challenging event has a typically opposite effect — it uploads an additional bulk of agitation and stress into you?
Does it get to you that a deeply satisfying state of happiness, a state of fulsome wellbeing and genuine joy, often remains elusive despite living fortunate lives?
These, and other such difficult situations we often find ourselves in today’s world, are traced to a change that happened in the brains of our earliest ancestors — which they passed down to us. The humans tended to go after pleasure and block out pain, and that habit got biologically hard-wired into the brain.
Evolutionary science hints this automatic behavior pattern got hard-wired into our earliest predecessors as a survival mechanism. By the way, we have a neuroplastic brain, which means our brain can reshape itself.
We call this the Pain-Pleasure principle.
If they didn’t run from pain, they would not have survived. And to run from possible pain, they were always looking out for dangers.
That jungle-living ancestor’s mind was constantly on this mode:
Ever since, we are on a constant watch looking out for what could go wrong around us, even in the modern-day when most of those life-threats do not exist. It is this that lies as the foundation of many of the psychological issues we routinely face in the modern world.
It’s this hypervigilance, and our harmful habit of self-criticism, we need to tone down first for thriving in today’s chaotic world.
A practical solution to this habit of uncontrolled “tuning-out” and “mind-wandering” is the intentional practice of mindfulness.
Why Do Our Minds Wander So Often
The reason our minds keep wandering off is our brains find it exhausting to stay always mindful. When the brain consciously focuses on every little detail of the present events, it works at the limits of its processing capacity. When that sustains for long, it gets drained.
If human minds could only think of things with conscious and deliberate attention, we could never tick off a majority of the items in our daily to-do list.
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox.— John Lennon
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.
Imagine paying close attention to every muscle movement while brushing your teeth, going through your morning workout, taking your bath, putting on your dress, and eating your breakfast.
And then, trying to pore over the details of the work on your computer screen. It would be an exhausted you trying to start the thing that needs your fine attention.
The conscious part of our mind finds it too much to handle the flood of moment-to-moment complex data. So, a good part of this mental processing gets handed over to the unconscious part. It saves the brain from getting quickly fatigued.
You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you.—James Allen, author of the classic self-help As A Man Thinketh
On one hand, being mindful is vital to work and life, but every moment is not worth our unwavering focus. On the other hand, being always mindless would make a mess of your discipline to focus when you need to.
Sadness is a forerunner of excessive mind-wandering. Research by Poerio and others found mind-wandering is more frequent when someone is sad.
We found that sadness was a significant precursor of mind-wandering … Our results contradict Killingsworth and Gilbert’s (2010) contention that unhappiness is the consequence of mind-wandering.— Poerio, Totterdell, Miles, 2013
So, here is the crux: We need a balance between both states. We cannot ask to be mindful or mindless all the time and still expect to stay relaxed and resilient.
The most psychologically flexible—and the most successful—people have the ability to switch back and forth between mindfulness and mindlessness, instead of becoming stuck in one mode.—Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, The Upside of Your Dark Side
What is mind-wandering?
Mind-wandering is having task-unrelated thoughts away from the here and now. It may be defined as inattention to the task at hand while one’s cognitive faculties engage with things unrelated to the present event and environment. In colloquial terms, it is “zoning out.”
How often do our minds wander?
People’s minds wander between 25% (Kane, Brown, et al., 2007) to 50% of their waking hours (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010), irrespective of what they are currently doing.
What causes mind-wandering?
A wandering mind usually tries to solve an unresolved problem playing at the back of one’s mind. The mind-wandering in the brain is often associated with the brain’s default-mode network or DMN (Fox et al., 2015). The DMN is a system of medial prefrontal and parietal areas in the brain, as well as the hippocampus, which is the seat of one’s memories.
How to stop mind-wandering?
(i) Mindfulness meditation is an efficient antidote to mind-wandering [Mrazek et al., 2014]. Mindfulness training reduces activation of the brain’s default-mode network or DMN while people are performing a cognitive task [Garrison et al., 2015]. By definition, mindfulness is sustained focusing of attention on the here and now experiences, with open monitoring of how the attention is directed [Lutz et al., 2015]. (ii) Another helpful way is to use neurofeedback to detect mind-wandering in real-time and intervene to reduce mind-wandering and bring attention back to the task [Awh & Vogel, 2015]. (iii) Intentional daydreaming or deliberate mind-wandering at specific intervals can reduce the frequency of unintentional mind-wandering.
Is mind-wandering good and can it make us happy?
(i) Deliberate mind-wandering or fantasizing can become a fun way to relieve boredom and monotony, and stress. (ii) The process of mind-wandering away from a painful situation can offer some benefit for relieving suffering [Kucyi, Salamons, & Davis, 2013]. (iii) Newer research using real-time data via a smartphone app indicates sadness comes before, and is not a consequence, of mind-wandering [Poerio, Totterdell, Miles, 2013]. (iv) Daydreaming about significant others is associated with increased happiness, love, and connection [Poerio et al., 2015]. (v) Mind-wandering can have a positive impact when one is planning the future or looking for creative solutions [Baird et al. 2012; Zedelius & Schooler, 2016].
Is mind-wandering bad and can it make us sad?
(i) Mind-wandering causes poorer performance on a large range of tasks in the laboratory and the real world [Mooneyham & Schooler, 2013; Randall, Oswald, & Beier, 2014]. (ii) Sadness is a hallmark of depression, and people with depression have more mind-wandering [Watts, MacLeod, & Morris, 1988[. (iii) Research suggests there are indirect links between mind-wandering and negative mood [Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010].
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.
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