Why do our minds keep traveling to distant lands? How does mind-wandering affect our mood and performance? How to stop your mind from wandering? Learn all about why we can’t seem to keep our minds where we are.
1. What does mind-wandering mean?
Mind-wandering means having task-unrelated thoughts (TUT) that interrupt task-focus. We may define it as not paying attention to the task at hand, while our cognitive faculties engage with things unrelated to the present event and environment.
According to the American Psychological Association, mind-wandering is “a condition in which thoughts do not remain focused on the task at hand but range widely and spontaneously across other topics. It tends to occur during tasks that do not require sustained attention.”
Psychology experts often refer to the contents of mind-wandering as task-unrelated thoughts (TUTs), task-unrelated images and thoughts (TUITs), or stimulus-independent and task-unrelated thoughts (SITUTs).
It is a relatively new term to make its debut in formal psychology. In 2006, Smallwood and Schooler suggested, “By referring to this phenomenon as mind wandering, a term familiar to the layperson, we hope to elevate the status of this research into mainstream psychological thinking.”
▪ When the mind wanders, one withdraws attention from their immediate environment and turns it inward to a stream of mental processes related to their current concerns (Klinger, 1999).
▪ Also, we lose our perceptual contact with the outer world, called perceptual decoupling.
▪ Often, there is no awareness of the current focus of one’s attention, called loss of meta-awareness. (Schooler et al., 2011). In colloquial terms, it is “zoning out.”
2. How often do our minds wander?
▪ The average person spends up to one-third of their life engaging in thoughts that are not related to the task at hand.
▪ Empirical literature shows that adults mind-wander as much as 30–50% of their waking lives, often at a considerable cost to the current performance and quality of life (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010; Schooler et al., 2011).
▪ According to Kane and Brown, 2007, people’s minds wander up to 25% of the time, irrespective of what they are currently doing.
▪ Paul Seli, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University, suggests mind-wandering can be intentional or unintentional. His research found intentional mind-wandering (the type we popularly call daydreaming or fantasizing) is more frequently future-oriented and less vague than unintentional mind-wandering.
▪ Older adults have a lower frequency of unintentional mind wandering.
3. How to stop mind-wandering? How can you keep your mind from wandering?
▪ Mind-wandering can be costly, especially while we perform attention-demanding tasks.
▪ Studies suggest mindfulness can be the most promising antidote to mind-wandering. By definition, mindfulness is a state of sustained focus of attention on the here and now experiences, while openly monitoring how the attention gets directed.
Here are some research-based findings on mindfulness meditation’s ability to reduce mind-wandering:
▪ Mindfulness meditation is a potentially efficient antidote to mind-wandering (Mrazek et al., 2014). Mindfulness training reduces the activation of the brain’s default-mode network or DMN while performing a cognitive task (Garrison et al., 2015).
▪ Seli found mindfulness meditation reduced mind-wandering over time and improved performance impairment during off-task episodes. Meditation also appeared to shift the attentional focus from the internal to the present-moment external world. This shift may help treat worrying in anxious people.
▪ 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).
▪ Intentional mind-wandering or deliberate daydreaming at specific intervals can reduce the frequency of unintentional mind-wandering.
▪ Research shows those who report high levels of mindfulness on the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale tend to mind-wander less during laboratory tasks (Mrazek et al., 2012) and that mindfulness training can reduce mind-wandering (Mrazek et al., 2013). MAAS measures the presence or absence of attention to and awareness of what is occurring in the present.
How To Learn Most During Boring Lectures?
Having shorter focus-intensive time frames may help pass the time during tedious, repetitive tasks, such as boring lectures. Research by Kane and Smeekens (2017) suggests prior knowledge helps students pay more attention to the current material. Meanwhile, those with less background knowledge can help themselves stay focused by taking notes.
4. Is mind-wandering good and can it make us happy?
▪ Intentional mind-wandering or fantasizing can become a fun way to relieve boredom, monotony, and stress.
▪ The process of mind-wandering away from a painful situation can offer some benefit for relieving suffering (Kucyi, Salamons, & Davis, 2013).
▪ Mind-wandering does not make us unhappy. Research using real-time data via a smartphone app pointed out that sadness comes before, and not as a result of, mind-wandering (Poerio, Totterdell, Miles, 2013).
▪ Daydreaming about significant others can increase our happiness, love, and bonding (Poerio et al., 2015).
▪ Mind-wandering can have a positive impact when planning for the future or looking for creative solutions (Baird et al. 2012; Zedelius & Schooler, 2016)
5. Is a wandering mind an unhappy mind?
Can mind-wandering steal our happiness and make us sad?
▪ Sadness is a hallmark of depression, and people with depression have more mind-wandering, as was found by Watts, MacLeod, & Morris in 1988. Research suggests there are indirect links between mind-wandering and negative mood, reported Killingsworth & Gilbert in 2010.
▪ This research found people who often indulge in unintentional mind-wandering are more likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Meanwhile, intentional mind-wandering may protect against these sorts of affective dysfunction.
▪ There are indirect links between mind-wandering and negative mood. The depressed people seem to have more mind-wandering.
▪ High levels of mind-wandering come not only with worse moods but also greater stress and negative thinking, as discovered by Smallwood and team in 2009, and Killingsworth and Gilbert in 2010.
▪ Mind-wandering causes poorer performance on a large range of tasks in the laboratory and in the real world (Mooneyham & Schooler, 2013; Randall, Oswald, & Beier, 2014)
▪ In 2013, Mrazek and his research team found increased mind-wandering and self-attention to one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences linked with low levels of self-esteem.
First, we found that sadness was a significant precursor of mind-wandering because instances of mind-wandering were associated with higher levels of prior sadness. … Our results contradict Killingsworth and Gilbert’s (2010) contention that unhappiness is the consequence of mind-wandering. – Poerio, Totterdell, Miles, 2013
Terhune and colleagues conducted the following study to find out if we are more prone to fatal mishaps when our minds wander:
- In their experiment, they showed volunteers occasional “oddball” green circles for different durations. This while they remained immersed in a stream of “standard” blue circles for 500 milliseconds.
- They had to decide whether each oddball was coming in for a shorter or longer duration than the “standard” blue circles and whether they were on-task or off-task.
- The researchers found when the volunteers’ minds wandered, they guessed the “oddball” duration was less.
- The experimenters asked the volunteers whether a test period was closer to a trained long or short standard interval in a second experiment. They found that when their minds wandered, the participants estimated the test intervals as less.
The authors concluded, that mind-wandering may divert attention away from sensory data input and toward task-unrelated cognitive processes, worsening present awareness. This may cause accidents while performing tasks demanding precise timing relative to the environment, such as driving.
6. Why do our minds wander so often? How does mind-wandering occur?
A wandering mind is usually trying to work out a solution to a problem playing at the back of one’s mind.
▪ Fox et al., 2015, suggest mind-wandering is associated with the brain’s default-mode network or DMN. The DMN is a system of medial prefrontal and parietal areas in the brain and the hippocampus, which is the seat of one’s memories.
▪ Joshua Shepherd suggests unintentional mind-wandering gets triggered precisely when our executive control network (ECN) regards the expected value of our task as too low. And this “too low” judgment nudges us to search for a higher goal or task.
▪ Our brains find it exhausting to stay attentive all the time. Mind-wandering is a way of temporarily escaping the state of hypervigilance. A brain consciously focusing on each little detail of the present event works itself to the limits of its processing power. When our brain has to sustain its focus for a long time, it tends to wander off rather than drain itself out.
Let’s explore why our minds evolved into being so watchful.
The early humans went after pleasure and blocked out the pain. We now call this the Pain-Pleasure principle. If they didn’t run from pain, they would not have survived.
And to run away from anything that might even remotely cause pain, they were in a state of hypervigilance, looking out for dangers. Our jungle-living ancestor’s mind was constantly on this mode:
“What’s wrong here that can cause me pain?“
Evolutionary science hints this automatic behavior pattern got hard-wired into our earliest predecessors as a survival mechanism. They passed this change down to us.
Ever since then, 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 principle that causes many of our present-day psychological issues.
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.
After that, try to pore over the details of the work on your computer screen. It will exhaust you as you overwork your fine attention.
In short, 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.
7. Is there a test to find out about mind-wandering?
When the mind wanders, what actually wanders is the stream of consciousness. So, a common and direct approach to assess mind-wandering is to interrupt participants during a task and ask them how much of their attention was on-task or other concerns.
▪ Mind-Wandering Questionnaire (MWQ) is a scale commonly used to assess mind-wandering. MWQ measures the frequency of mind-wandering, irrespective of whether mind-wandering is deliberate or spontaneous. (Mrazek et al., 2013)
▪ Another widely used scale is the Daydream Frequency Scale (DDFS), also known as the Daydream Subscale of the Imaginal Processes Inventory (Giambra, 1995).
▪ The Attention Related Cognitive Errors Scale (ARCES) is a less widely used scale that examines the frequency of everyday mistakes likely to be caused by attention-related failures. (Cheyne et al., 2006)
▪ Another questionnaire used to assess mind-wandering is the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale (MAAS). This scale measures the presence or absence of attention to and awareness of what is occurring in the present. (Brown and Ryan, 2003)
Finally, do you find it frustrating that, despite our good fortune, we often fail to achieve a profoundly satisfying degree of happiness, well-being, and joy?
Much of that comes from our brains scouring for dangers. Even when we are happy, we cannot seem to enjoy it or thank others for it. We pursue future happiness at the cost of present satisfaction.
As we know, attempting to remain calm minutes before a stressful event has the opposite effect. It adds a significant amount of anxiety and tension to our minds. The reason is the same: we are scouring for mishaps.
As Deion Sanders says, “I felt like a deer with a hundred hunters after me.”
So, we must learn to tone down our hypervigilance, and curb our tendency to self-criticize, if we are to thrive in the chaotic society today.
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Discover The 3 Most Life-Changing Benefits of Mind-Wandering!
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.
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