It’s Healthy to Let Your Mind Wander

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Let me see, now, where was I?

Ah, yes, the wandering mind.

Mind-wandering has gotten bad press. The wandering mind is said to be an unhappy mind, perhaps even setting us on a path to early death. This view is encouraged by the popularity of mindfulness, and other meditative techniques, designed to focus our thoughts so intently that the mind is tethered into near immobility.

Mind-wandering often seems to afflict us when we’re supposed to be concentrating on something, such as a lecture, a board meeting, or driving. It also gets in the way when we’re simply trying to read a book. Jonathan Schooler and colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara had students read the opening chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace for 45 minutes and asked them to press a key whenever they caught themselves “zoning out.” They caught themselves an average of 5.4 times. The students were also interrupted six times at random intervals to see if they were zoning out at the time without having been aware of it, and this caught, on average, a further 1.2 times. So it’s not just you, you might be relieved to know — we all seem to have trouble staying focused, especially on the books we’re actually supposed to be reading. Or the lecturer we’re supposed to be listening to.

Rather than allow our minds to roam around the mental landscapes of past and present, or gardens of joy or anguish, we are urged to remain within our own skins, moving a spotlight of attention from one part of the body to another, or intently examining the sensations of breathing. I have no doubt that such techniques can restore a mental calm, although one may well wonder whether mindfulness, any more than mind-wandering, actually helps us get focused on the things we must do.

Despite all the negative attention it’s gotten, there isn’t much evidence that a wandering mind causes significant harm. Yes, Italian researchers found that excessive mind-wandering, even when shorn of what they call “perseverative cognition” — rumination and worry — may have negative effects on health in the short term — but there were no detectable effects a year later. It seems we are programmed to alternate between mind-wandering and paying attention, and our minds are designed to wander whether we like it or not.

There’s a good reason for that. In adapting to a complex world, we need to escape the here and now, and consider possible futures, mull over past mistakes, understand how other people’s minds work. Above all, mind-wandering is the source of creativity, the spark of innovation that leads in the longer run to an increase rather than a decrease in well-being. It is even suggested that we have entered a new era of education that recognizes creativity and problem-solving, rather than simply “drilling the rote memorization of facts and figures.” Maybe we should stop feeling guilty about mind-wandering and learn to revel in our escapades.

At first, it was assumed that brain activity during non-engagement was simply background neural noise, like static on an old radio. In studying the activity associated with a given task, such as reading words, it was supposed that one could simply subtract out the neural signal when the brain was idling from that when it was engaged in the task. It transpired, though, that blood flow to the idling brain was only 5 to 10 per cent lower than to the engaged brain, and wider regions of the brain were active during idling than during engagement on a task. The brain regions active during the supposedly resting state have come to be known as the “default-mode network.”

The default-mode network covers large regions of the brain, mainly in the areas not directly involved in perceiving the world or responding to it. The brain is a bit like a small town, with people milling around, going about their business. When some big event occurs, such as a football game, the people then flock to the football ground, while the rest of the town grows quiet. A few people come from outside, slightly increasing the population. But it’s not the football game we’re interested in here. Rather, it’s the varied business of the town, the give and take of commerce, the sometimes meandering activity of people in their communities and places of work. So it is in the brain. When the mind is not focused on some event, it wanders.

Mind-wandering can be under conscious control, as when we deliberately replay past memories or plan possible future activities. Sometimes it is involuntary, as when we dream, or hallucinate — things that just happen to us whether we want them to or not. Sometimes it lies somewhere in between, as when we daydream, perhaps with the intent of considering some dilemma, or try to solve a cryptic crossword clue, but other thoughts intrude. As the comedian Steven Wright complained: “I was trying to daydream but my mind kept wandering.”

Mind-wandering plays cat and mouse with paying attention. In one study, Japanese researchers had people watch videos while recording their brain activity. Most of the time, the brain areas concerned with paying attention were active, but at natural breaks in the stream of events people would blink their eyes, and brain activity would momentarily shift to the default-mode network. Indeed, sometimes when people are supposed to be paying attention to something like a video, they blink more often than is necessary to lubricate the eyes. This is a sign that their minds have flitted away from the story.

Even undirected wandering can stimulate creativity indirectly, through what is known as “incubation,” in which ideas are developed while one is thinking of something else. This has even been demonstrated experimentally. People were given the task of inventing unusual uses for familiar objects, a task commonly used as a measure of creativity. After working on this for a short time, most of them were given a break. During the break, some engaged in a task demanding of memory, some in an undemanding task, and some simply sat quietly without doing anything. When the creativity task resumed, those who performed the undemanding task performed best, probably because their minds wandered; other research has shown that undemanding tasks are most likely to induce mind-wandering, more likely even than doing nothing. If you’re seeking inspiration, it seems a good idea to take a break and do something undemanding, like washing the dishes or watching a light TV show. Or perhaps knitting, which could explain why Agatha’s Christie’s Miss Marple, a compulsive knitter, was able to solve murder mysteries. Maybe Agatha Christie was herself a compulsive knitter, which is why she was able to create the murder mysteries in the first place.

However you choose to wander, do not be discouraged into thinking that it is a waste of time. Of course, teacher was not always wrong — there are occasions when we need to attend in order to learn or finish some job. But nature also designed us to dream, to escape the channels that confine us. Remember the study by Jonathan Schooler and his associates on the frequency with which people zoned out while reading War and Peace? Well, those whose minds wandered most scored best on various measures of creativity. If the teacher or the board chairman catches you looking out the window when important matters are under discussion, you can explain that you are simply opening the doors of creativity.

From The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, by Michael C. Corballis. Copyright 2015 by Michael C. Corballis. Published by the University of  Chicago Press. All rights reserved.