100 Things You Should Know About People: #39 — Your Mind Wanders 30% of the Time

Photo by Dave Grave*

You are at work reading a report that one of your colleagues has written and you realize that you’ve just read the same sentence about three times. Instead of thinking about what you were reading, your mind wandered.

Mind wandering is similar to, but not the same thing as daydreaming. Psychologists use daydreaming to refer to any stray thoughts, fantasies, or stories you imagine, for example, winning the lottery, or being a famous celebrity. The term mind wandering is more specific, and refers to when you are doing one task and then fade into thinking about something that is not related to that task.

Mind wandering is a very common phenomena – We underestimate our mind wandering; according to Jonathan Schooler of UC, Santa Barbara, we think our minds are wandering about 10% of the time, when it is actually much more. In normal every day activities our mind is wandering up to 30% of the time, and in some cases, for instance when driving on an uncrowded highway, it might be as high as 70%.

Wandering minds annoy some neuroscientists – Some neuroscientists became interested in studying wandering minds because they were such an annoyance while doing brain scan research. The researchers would have subjects do a certain task, for example, look at a picture, or read a passage, while scanning for brain activity. About 30% of the time they would get extraneous results which did not seem to be related to the task at hand. That’s because the subject’s mind was wandering from the task at hand. Eventually the researchers decided to start studying the wandering rather than just getting annoyed by it.

Why a wandering mind can be a good thing – Mind wandering allows one part of the brain to focus on the task at hand, and another part of the brain to keep a higher goal in mind. So you are driving and paying attention to the road, but you are also thinking about when you should stop for gas. Or you are reading an article online about a thyroid medication called Synthroid that your doctor thinks you should take, but your mind wanders to the idea that you should put that salon appointment on your calendar. Mind wandering might be the closest thing we have to multi-tasking. It’s not really multi-tasking, (which doesn’t exist…you can see my previous blog post on that), but mind wandering does allow you to keep important goals in mind while doing one thing.

Why a wandering mind can be a bad thing – Much of the time when our mind wanders we aren’t aware of it. More “zoning out” than “mind wandering”, this means that we can miss important information. For example, if you are supposed to be reading that report from your colleague, but you are instead thinking about what to make for dinner, that may just mean you are being unproductive. We aren’t usually aware when we are zoning out.

More mind wandering = more creativity – The researchers at UC, Santa Barbara have evidence that people whose mind wanders a lot are more creative and better problem solvers. Their brains have them working on the task at hand, but simultaneously processing other information, and making connections.

Mind wandering and the internet – I’ve been thinking about the fact that the ability to quickly switch from topic to topic is what the web does really well.  Is web surfing related to mind wandering? Here are some of my mind wanderings on this topic:

  • Do we like web surfing because it enables this type of wandering?
  • Rather than designing web sites to try and hold people’s attention should we design to encourage wandering?
  • Should we build in feedback about the wandering so that it is easier to get people back to the original thought?

What do you think?

If you like to read research:

Christoff, et. al., Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, May 11, 2009.

Mason, et. al., Wandering Minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science, January 19, 2007.

Photo Credit: : http://www.flickr.com/photos/daveograve/

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