It might happen when you’re sitting in traffic waiting for the light to turn green. It could also happen when you’re listening to someone’s lengthy report during an office meeting. Or it could be happening to you right now. What’s happening?
Your mind is wandering. Daydreaming. Not staying present in the moment.
Is mind-wandering a problem? With recent increased focus on the importance of mental health to one’s overall wellness, one may wonder whether their own unfocused thinking or mental ‘down times’ are symptoms of mental wellness or mental illness.
In Vancouver, Canada, at the University of British Columbia, psychology professor Kalina Christoff was the lead author of a review, published online in 2016, of mind-wandering neuroscientific studies from over 200 journals. Printed in Nature Reviews, Christoff et al suggest “that mind-wandering isn’t an odd quirk of the mind. . . Rather, it’s something that the mind does when it enters into a spontaneous mode.”
Christoff’s co-author Zachary Irving, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who has ADHD, says their lengthy examination of the science behind mind-wandering “could help better understand the stream of consciousness of patients with mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)”.
The key, say the cross-border co-authors, is to understand what makes some thoughts flow easily while at other times our thoughts are blocked, keep returning or become stuck on one idea or concern. “Understanding what makes thought free and what makes it constrained is crucial because it can help us understand how thoughts move in the minds of those diagnosed with mental illness,” Christoff explained.
Based on these scientists’ new framework with which they examined mind-wandering, they see mental health disorders as part of the variety of thinking that exists in every human mind. “This framework suggests, in a sense, that we all have someone with anxiety and ADHD in our minds,” Irving said. “The anxious mind helps us focus on what’s personally important; the ADHD mind allows us to think freely and creatively.”
Without mind-wandering, the two argue, humans would lack both creative thinking and the ability to dream.
A November article on the American Psychological Association’s (APA) website explains that “the average person spends up to one third of their life engaging in thoughts that are not related to the task at hand”.
The APA article refers to a study by Devin Terhune et al, published this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which a group of research participants were asked to estimate the amount of time between the arrival of two different images they were viewing on a screen—a constant stream of blue circles interspersed with “oddball” green circles. Viewers were asked to do the estimating when they were fully ‘on task’ and concentrating, as well as when their minds were wandering.
According to Terhune et al, the results showed that when the participants were mind-wandering and less focused on their task, they tended to underestimate the amount of time between the appearance of the oddball green circles.
The APA article explains that based on these observations, the scientists reasoned that mind-wandering may result in impaired perceptions: “While this may be problematic during tasks that require precise timing . . . like driving, perceiving time intervals as shorter could be beneficial . . . during a boring, repetitive task, like folding laundry,” they suggest.
In her 2016 article for HuffPost.ca, writer Carolyn Gregoire discussed a variant of mind-wandering being studied by psychologists called positive-constructive daydreaming. Psychologists have reported seeing this kind of daydreaming in very creative individuals, Gregoire wrote. “The free play of thoughts that occurs in mind-wandering may enable us to think more flexibly and draw more liberally upon our vast internal reservoir of memories, feelings and images in order to create new and unusual connections.”
In an earlier article for HuffPost.ca, Gregoire referred to the work of New York University psychology professor and author Scott Barry Kaufman. Kaufman, “argues that having your head in the clouds might actually help people to better engage with the pursuits that are most personally meaningful to them”. In other words, Gregoire explained, mind-wandering can actually be a rewarding activity.
Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, published in 1970, admitted that the popular story was the result of his own years of daydreaming about what life would be like if he could turn into a seagull. Allowing himself to daydream and to write the musings down on paper resulted in a classic creation for literature.
In Gregoire’s article, she wrote that Kaufman advised people to look for a mindful balance—to allow one’s mind to wander as well as stay focused. “[If] we're always in the moment, we're going to miss out on important connections between our own inner mind-wandering thoughts and the outside world,” Kaufman said. “Creativity lies in that intersection between our outer world and our inner world."
American Psychological Association. (November 17, 2017). Effects of Mind Wandering. http://www.apa.org/pubs/highlights/peeps/issue-106.aspx
Anwar, Y., (October 31, 2016). Berkeley News. Does your mind jump around, stay on task or get stuck? http://news.berkeley.edu/2016/10/31/wanderingmind/
Christoff, K., Irving, Z.C., Fox, K.C.R., Spreng, R.N., & Andrews-Hanna, J.R., (September 22, 2016). Nature Reviews. https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn.2016.113
Gregoire, C., (November 3, 2016). HuffPost.ca. A Wandering Mind Isn’t Just A Distraction. It May Be Your Brain’s Default State. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/mind-wandering-creativity-mental-illness_us_5818acc4e4b0990edc33827a
Gregoire, C., (October 3, 2013). HuffPost.ca. How Daydreaming Can Actually Make You Smarter. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/mind-wandering_n_4024852
UBC News. (October 2016). Understanding mind wandering could shed light on mental illness. https://news.ubc.ca/2016/10/31/understanding-mind-wandering-could-shed-light-on-mental-illness-ubc-research/