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November 7, 2012

What's Up with Your Wandering Mind

Letting your mind wander can be a great way to solve problems. It's also a good way to waste time.

Your mind was born to wander. People spend half of their life wandering in their own minds, thinking about something other than the task at hand. Who hasn't been writing a report or washing the dishes and suddenly found themselves wondering about what they're going to eat for dinner or how to resolve a ticklish personal situation? Lately, researchers have been probing the details of when and why the mind wanders. And while they haven't found out much about how you can cut down on your mind's tendency to wander (which you might not even want to do), they have found some ways you might be able to use it to your advantage.

What seems to matter most is when and how much the mind wanders. Giving it room to roam, a place for your thoughts to steep idly and naturally can be helpful to creativity. But mind wandering can also be a way of dodging the heavy-lifting kind of thinking we all need to do at times. Too much of this kind of lack of attention could result in a mind that is unable to readily focus its energies on the situation at hand and prone to forgetfulness and errors.

The Wandering Mind is a Creative Mind

Giving yourself time to let your mind wander is important to the creative process. Everyone's had their aha! moments, flashes of insight when an answer springs up (seemingly) out of nowhere, just like the light bulb over a cartoon character's head. But where do these answers really come from? And how can you help them along?

Giving your mind room to roam, a place for your thoughts to steep idly and naturally can be helpful to creativity. But mind wandering can also be a way of dodging the heavy-lifting kind of thinking we all need to do at times.

The best way to encourage out-of-the-box thinking is to take a break and spend that time working on a mundane, undemanding, somewhat boring task. Sweep the floor. Mow the lawn. Make the bed.

A recent study shows just how important giving the mind the right kind of break can be. Young adults were asked to work on a series of problems called the Unusual Uses Tasks (UUT). These situations are designed to test creativity. They ask you to come up with out-of-the-ordinary uses for a common item, such as a brick. Each person was given two problems to work on for two minutes each.

How they fared on these problems was the basis of comparison for the second part of the experiment, trying to find out what could improve their performance.

Participants were split into four groups in the second part of this study. Three of the groups took 12-minute breaks: One rested quietly, the second spent the time working on a mentally demanding task, and the third spent the time working on an undemanding task. After the break was up, subjects filled out two questionnaires, one that asked how frequently their minds had wandered during those 12 minutes and another that asked how often they were thinking about their earlier UUT task. The fourth group was given no break at all: they went straight from working on their first two UUT problems to working on the next four problems.

The three other groups were given four more UUT problems after their break -- the same two they had worked on previously, and two new ones. They were given two minutes for each problem.

In order to see what condition most improved performance, the researchers compared each group's post-break performance to their pre-break one. They also asked everyone to fill out a questionnaire about how much their minds tended to wander. The findings suggest some of the tricks creative people use when trying to solve a problem:
  • The group that spent their break on the undemanding task showed both the most mind wandering and the biggest improvement in creative uses for their original two UUT problems after the break. None of the other groups showed this improvement.
  • When it came to the new unusual uses problems, nothing the other groups did during their break helped their performance, suggesting that practice with these sorts of problems didn't really help people come up with more creative solutions, but having the problem in mind as it wandered did.
  • Time spent thinking purposefully about the problem also was not a factor. None of the three groups that took a break reported any difference in how much time they spent thinking about the original UUT problems during the break.
  • People who scored high in everyday mind wandering tended to do better overall on the Unusual Uses Tasks, on old, revisited problems as well as new ones.

What these results suggest is that working at an undemanding task helps people find creative solutions to problems that they've already been thinking about. It doesn't seem to enhance general creativity, since it didn't help the subjects solve newly-presented problems.

People who are trying to solve a particularly knotty problem and aren't making headway might want to take heed of this study . A brief session of gardening, chopping vegetables in the kitchen or doing a little dusting might succeed where a direct attack hasn't.

Mind Wandering Leads to Errors and Wasted Bandwidth

Of course, there's a time and place for everything. Having your mind wander at the wrong time can be both painful and embarrassing. Hammered thumbs and burnt roasts are unwelcome reminders of this. And no one even wants to think about riding on an airplane with a pilot whose mind is wandering.

People working with tools know that it's a bad idea to let their mind wander, just like people cooking know there's going to be trouble if they forget to shut off the oven. But it happens anyway. Why? Part of the answer seems related to working memory.

Working Memory: Measuring a Mind's Bandwidth
The reason why mind wandering leads us to forget the roast, neglect to nail down the other end of the board or flip an important switch has to do with the way it interferes with memory. By letting our attention wander, we have less attention to offer the task at hand, and this can impact how well we perform in the long run.

People with higher working memory capacity have some control over their mind wandering, or a better ability to focus their minds quickly, that people with lower WMC don't.

In research on memory, this short-term attention to detail is conceptualized as working memory. Working memory has been described as the mind's sketch pad. It's the ability to learn and retrieve information in the short-term, such as a list of words or the names of all the U.S. presidents. Working memory sets the stage for deeper, more substantial learning, committing information to long-term memory and developing expertise -- where the surgeon knows just where to find the blood vessels she is hoping to repair, or the plumber has a good idea where the problem with your pipes is likely to lie.

Working memory is also limited. While psychologists and memory researchers dispute its exact capacity, all agree that the mind can only hold so much information in play at a moment. When researchers attempt to measure the effect of mind wandering on someone's working memory capacity (WMC), they rarely measure just how long a list a person can store and retrieve; they usually add in a second unrelated task as a distraction, such as performing mathematical operations or recognizing patterns. They're testing a person's ability to recall information from the original list in the face of a considerable amount of distraction. So they're not only measuring someone's short-term ability to store and retrieve information, they're also looking at their ability to multitask.

You can look at this type of working memory test as an attempt to measure a mind's bandwidth. And a mind's bandwidth affects when it wanders.

Reining in the Wandering Mind
Studies designed to measure the relationship among working memory capacity, mind wandering and the number of errors made while performing a task offer some insight into how our wandering minds can sabotage our efforts, according to a recent study by researchers at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
  • People with lower working memory capacity (WMC) reported more mind wandering than people with high WMC did when faced with tasks that required high concentration. This effect was not related to increased boredom, stress or sleepiness, or to decreased happiness, task enjoyment, or feelings of competence. While all these factors led to increased mind wandering, the effect of lower WMC was a totally separate effect.
  • People whose minds wandered more in laboratory tests also reported more mind wandering in their daily lives outside of the lab.
  • People with lower WMC reported more mind wandering during reading comprehension tests and also performed poorer on those tests.
  • In a computer task where people had to press a key when an animal name appeared on screen (often) and withhold pressing on the rare occasions when a food name appeared instead, people with lower WMC made more errors, indicating a lack of conscious control over mind wandering.

People who are constantly burning their dinner or hitting their thumb while hammering nails probably can't blame it on a lack of mental bandwidth.

Taken together, these results suggest that everyday mind wandering during tasks leads to errors, which isn't much of a surprise. "WMC genuinely predicts people’s vulnerability to off-task thinking and its apparent consequences," the authors tell us. But they also suggest that people with higher working memory capacity have more control over their mind wandering, or a better ability to focus their minds quickly, that people with lower working memory capacity don't. This is one of the reasons they make fewer errors during everyday tasks.

Another study found that individuals with higher WM capacity reported their minds wandered more than those with less WMC when faced with an undemanding task, suggesting that our working memory actually is part of what enables mind wandering.

But differences in working memory capacity only accounted for a small (5%) difference in the mind wandering seen in this study. So people who are constantly burning their dinner or hitting their thumb while hammering nails probably can't blame it on a lack of mental bandwidth. After all, how much bandwidth does it take to remember to turn off the stove?

Can we improve our working memories, or the attention needed to focus them? In other words, is it possible to control the mind's tendency to go off task? In our 24/7 world, the ability to focus the mind in the midst of so many competing inputs lies behind part of the popularity of yoga and meditation. And in fact, the researchers in this study found that people whose minds wandered when they shouldn't might be able to learn how to control them.

Given the Opportunity, the Mind Wanders Inward

What does the mind do when it isn't doing anything obvious? A recent review article about the mind's default state concluded that left to its own devices, the mind tends to roam inward in reflection. 5 But it needs to be given the opportunity to wander.

A person who reflects on the proper way to live their life is much more likely to live it that way than someone who merely concentrates on meeting the everyday challenges that life throws at them.

According to this study, the mind at rest has a very different brain network active than a mind that's focused on a task or is heavily engaged in interacting with the rest of the world, according to brain imaging studies. When researchers look at the activity of brain networks, physically separate areas of the brain that are functionally linked by chemical and electrical communication between themselves, they've found that a different brain network is active when we are task-oriented and goal–directed as compared to when we are in a resting state. The first network is one they see as looking out, the second as looking in.

It is not a case of one network being turned off while the other is on; it's more that the activity of one network tends to go down when the other goes up. Just as it is hard to look out and to look in at the same time. Physically, the looking-in network comprises mainly regions along the midline of the brain, in both the parietal and the frontal lobes, along with more lateral regions in the inferior part of the parietal lobe and the medial part of the temporal lobe.

A person who reflects on the proper way to live their life is much more likely to live it that way than someone who merely concentrates on meeting the everyday challenges that life throws at them.

When our minds wander inward in introspection, the brain networks involved in reflection process abstract psychological, emotional and subjective information about ourselves and others. In other words, the looking-in system is involved in constructive internal reflection -- sifting through the social and emotional implications of everyday events and relationships and connecting them together in a personally meaningful manner.

The researchers in this study expressed concern about the consequences of failing to pay enough attention to the mind's introspective side. A person who reflects on the proper way to live their life is much more likely to live it that way than someone who merely concentrates on meeting the everyday challenges that life throws at them. And the researchers are especially worried about what lack of introspection may be doing to children.

Over-Programmed Kids Need Time to Let Their Minds Wander

There has certainly been a great deal of attention paid to children who have difficulty focusing on everyday tasks. Attention deficits and particularly, ADHD are major, and some would say, over-used, diagnoses among schoolchildren. But what happens when kids have too little time to let their minds wander in introspection? Researchers worry that constantly imposing high attention demands on children may be robbing them of the chance to make sense of all that is happening in their lives and to put it all in perspective. (5)

School followed by soccer practice followed by violin lessons leaves little free time for reflection. Schoolchildren faced with responsibilities, such as looking after younger siblings after coming home from school may likewise find their calendar too full for much reflection.

Attention deficits and particularly, ADHD are major, and some would say, over-used, diagnoses among schoolchildren. But what happens when they have too little time to let their minds wander in introspection?

So far, there has been so little study of the looking-in network or of children's need to look inward. However, as anyone who has ever had a creative insight in the shower knows, rest is not idleness, nor is it a wasted opportunity for productivity. Constructive internal reflection, AKA mind wandering, is vital for learning from one's experiences and for making sense of the world around us, particularly its social and emotional aspects, for children as well as adults.

Oases for a Wandering Mind

The recent investigations into mind wandering have uncovered several practical insights. The next time you are wrestling with a seemingly unsolvable problem, try spending some time on a mundane task. If your mind tends to wander at the wrong time, know that you can learn techniques to avoid it, or focus your attention, perhaps by meditation training, or simply shutting out as many of the distractions as possible.

And anyone who's caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of work and sleep or who worries that their children's lives are over-scripted should make a point of giving their children some idle time.

The Dalai Lama reportedly once asked neuroscientist Richard Davidson why the tools of neuroscience couldn't be used to investigate kindness, compassion and well being. That was a polite way of pointing out that too few researchers were asking the right questions. If researchers continue to ask the right questions about the mind's wanderings, who knows what other useful information they'll uncover. After all, why should yoga instructors and meditators have all the fun when it comes to unraveling practical ways to keep the mind focused or roaming?

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