March 30, 2015
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The Wandering Mind: Inspiration, Introspection and Distraction
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The Wandering Mind: Inspiration, Introspection and Distraction


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.(1) 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.(2) 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.

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