A very interesting phenomenon which has gained the attention of researchers over the past few years is mind wandering (MW) which is a state of the mind that is roughly opposite to mindfulness. As the name suggests, MW is a frame of mind where we are unable to stay focused on what is happening in the present moment, inside and around ourselves. It is quite obvious that a wandering mind is prone to making mistakes. Less obvious, and also less researched, is the fact that there is a beneficial side to MW, ability to be creative and engage in future planning. Like anything concerned with the mind, it is difficult to pin down and measure MW. However, researchers have employed clever methods to not only measure it, such as self-reports, behavioural and physiological measures and combinations of the three but also get a clear picture of MW. One such method is fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which has become a tool of choice for investigating the functioning of the mind. fMRI can recognise the distinctive signatures left in our brains by various acts that we engage in including MW.
During MW state, our thoughts are generally focussed on either ourselves and/or the future or the past. A network of regions in the medial surface of the cerebral cortex known as the default mode network (DMN) is active when the mind is wandering, in other words, when it is not focussing on the task at hand. Research suggests that self-referential thinking and thinking about the future, and particularly about the past, leads to negative affect or mood. MW is also associated with rumination, depression and anxiety. A seminal study found that people felt most happy ONLY when they were focussed on the present moment. However, between 25% and 50% of the time, we are not focused on what we were doing. In other words, we are wasting anything between a quarter and half of our life not being engaged in what we are doing. What a waste of the precious gift of life! If we are unhappy when we are not dwelling in the present moment, why do we do it? Some say that we yearn to break out of the constraints imposed by the ‘present’ and also as social beings, we think about people, places and events that may not be here right now. Secondly, it is suggested that we may engage in MW to escape the boredom of repetitive tasks or alternatively the pressure imposed by demanding tasks. The reason may be anything but research indicates that MW is a result of our lack of executive control.
One of the ways to reduce MW is to develop mindfulness which involves being aware of and directing our attention to what is happening in the present moment both inside and outside ourselves. Sometimes what is happening in the present may be uncomfortable or even painful. However, mindfulness trains us to relate to the ‘present’ in a friendly and compassionate way. More often than not after a good bout of mindfulness meditation, people experience anything from a warm glow of happiness to an exhilarating sense of euphoria. However, being mindful for long periods is not an easy task but we can train ourselves to be increasingly mindful. Research has shown that we are usually unaware of when our mind has wandered. Therefore, another method to counter MW is to develop meta-awareness which is the ability to notice when our mind begins to wander and bring it back to the present. Yet another way is to focus on the task at hand. Tolle says that everything that exists is holy. Therefore, if we approach everything we do with care and diligence, almost a sense of reverence, not only does our focus increase but so does our enjoyment. There can be no excuses for not working on reducing our MW because it is something we can control. It is in our hands. Secondly, it influences how well or how poorly we perform our tasks and that certainly influences how we progress in our professional and personal lives. Lastly, controlling it as discussed above, increases our wellbeing. Whether we want to be mindful or mindless is a choice all of us have to, and more importantly, can make. For me, it is a no-brainer. So what’s your choice?
If you want a more in-depth treatment of the subject please read ‘The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness’ by Smallwood and Schooler.