Thinking, by its very function, is a great tool for solving problems. However, humans tend to spend much of their thinking hours pondering about things far removed from their present activity.
Unfocused mind wandering slips from thought to thought with no rhyme or reason and no particular destination. It has been linked to a poor performance, higher accidents, and a less enjoyable life and yet it remains a pillar of creative thought and problem solving because of its ability to connect far-reaching ideas.
Taking advantage of your mind’s natural inclination to wander is paramount to making the most of your mental capacity without falling victim to endless streams of thoughts which build up to nothing.
The Pitfalls of a Wandering Mind
Harvard Psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert used an iPhone app to randomly quiz participants about their present thoughts throughout the day.
The paper, published in 2010, had some profound findings on mind wandering.
First, the researchers determined that “mind wandering occurred in 46.9% of the samples and in at least 30% of the samples taken during every activity except making love.”
It isn’t hard to imagine that almost half of our thoughts are wandering. Sitting at our desk at 11 a.m., we take a quick moment to think about what we are going to have for lunch which leads to us thinking about the next time we are going to the store to get groceries, which reminds us of how we saw an acquaintance the last time we went.
This happens more often than we probably like and are willing to admit.
However, the more pressing finding from Killingsworth and Gilbert was that “people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not.” Even those that let their mind wander to pleasant thoughts were more unhappy than those who were focused on their current activity.
It is possible that the mere action of taking a moment to stop paying attention to whatever you are doing and question your own happiness already puts your happiness into question. The researchers might agree with this as they go on to explain that “time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness.”
Becoming disconnected from our present activity draws our thoughts inwards, creating or exacerbating worries about the future, or over-analyzing and regretting the past.
Our overall happiness isn’t the only problem with letting mind wandering get out of hand: Letting our attention slip while driving will give us a higher chance to be responsible for an accident, and our performance on other tasks will suffer as well.
The results of studies on mind wandering seem grim, especially since we do it so often. Killingsworth and Gilbert agree with this, finalizing their paper with this haunting revelation: “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
The Brain’s Silver Lining
Mind wandering isn’t all fire and brimstone, however. There remains a saving grace for our ability to jump back and forth from seemingly random and distant thoughts: Creativity.
In a paper titled “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation” authors Benjamin Baird, Jonathan Smallwood, Michael D. Mrazek, Julia W.Y. Kam, Michael S. Franklin, and Jonathan W. Schooler research the ability of mind wandering to influence creative problem solving.
The researchers had a group of participants complete a problem, then, during a break, had them either complete a demanding task, an undemanding one, or just rest. After several minutes, they administered the first problem again and recorded the improvements (if any).
Their results showed that while mind wandering seems to enhance creative problem solving, this mind wandering effect is best achieved through light mentally loaded activity. The authors explain “the study reported here demonstrated that taking a break involving an undemanding task improved performance on a classic creativity task far more than did taking a break involving a demanding task, resting, or taking no break.”
In other words, do something tough, back off and do something easy, then go back to the tough problem.
Focused and Diffuse Thinking
The cause of this phenomenon is unclear. Baird and the other authors believe there are a couple of possibilities. First, that mind wandering works by “increasing unconscious associative processing” and second, that there is evidence “indicating that executive and default networks interact during mind wandering.”
Barbara Oakley, PhD, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, and an instructor for the very popular “Learning How to Learn” Coursera lecture series, offers a way of understanding how two different modes of thinking contribute to learning new things: Focused v. Diffuse Modes of thinking.
While focused thinking is how we normally try to learn and encode new information, concentrating on how to make the new idea as clear as possible, diffuse thinking is a bit different and according to Oakley “is related to a set of neural resting states.”
In this diffuse mode of thinking, you can look at things broadly from a very different big-picture perspective. You can make new neural connections traveling along new pathways. You can’t focus in as tightly as you often need to to finalize any sort of problem solving or understand the finest aspects of a concept but you can at least get to the initial place you need to be in.
The diffuse mode of thinking allows you to “open your mind” up a bit, giving you a chance to learn a new concept or come up with a new idea. Because creativity relies so much on breaking out of convention it seems that we have to “step back” from the problem a bit in order to get some perspective.
This information aligns nicely with the research by Baird and his colleagues, and Oakley seems to agree with the advice of taking a break from the tough problem before going back as she explains “being in one mode seems to limit your access to the other way of thinking.”
Knowledge of something we are extremely familiar with can be thought of as a tightly knit group of neurons in our brain that, when activated, allow for easy communication, retrieval, and focus.
However, if we’ve never encountered something before we don’t have the necessary connections available in order to grasp the new concept. The diffuse mode of thinking is a relaxed, unfocused state of thinking wherein it’s possible to connect far-reaching ideas, giving us a chance to wrap our mind around something new.
Trying to learn something new can be like looking for something in a field of grass. It has a shine to it, you just have to be standing in the correct spot mentally to reflect that shine so you can find it.
Pulling Back the Reigns on Default Mode
Mind Wandering and daydreaming are activities that have become associated with what scientists call the Default Mode Network. When you are not engaged in a mentally strenuous activity or just resting, there is evidence that your mind enters a “standby mode” which engages certain brain structures.
The default mode of thinking is relaxed and self-directed, causing you to think about yourself, your past, or plan for your future.
Journalist Dan Harris, an advocate of meditation, explains the default mode network as “a connected series of brain regions that are active during most of our waking hours when we’re doing that thing that human beings do all the time which is obsessing about ourselves, thinking about the past, thinking about the future, doing anything but being focused on what’s happening right now.”
In a video for Big Think, Harris describes how meditation can help someone focus on their present activity, instead of being constantly distracted:
Meditators not only turn off the default mode network of their brain while they’re meditating, but even when they’re not meditating. In other words, meditators are setting a new default mode. And what’s that default mode? They’re focused on what’s happening right now.
In other words, performing meditation improves Executive Control, the ability to actively select and maintain efficacy over attention and behavior.
Improving or maintaining Executive Control is extremely important as we age. Barbara Strauch in her book The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain, provides an optimistic view of the aging brain, describing how we aren’t as helpless as we think when it comes to aging and losing our ability to learn new things, pay attention, and stay mentally healthy.
However, that doesn’t mean aging comes without problems. One of these is susceptibility to distraction. Strauch explains that “starting in middle age, the brain’s ability to switch off the default mode starts to wane.” We are at a higher risk of getting stuck mind wandering and being unable to snap ourselves out of it.
She continues: “As we age, our frontal lobes don’t block out irrelevant details that interfere as well, perhaps because they switch into default mode, or because of declines in connections or in the brain’s chemical messengers…”
Losing the ability to focus makes it tough to learn new things and puts you at a greater risk to have an accident. In order to continue to learn into old age, controlling your mind wandering through improving Executive Control is a good first step as any.
Using Mind Wandering to Your Advantage
Your mind will wander periodically, whether you want it to or not. Human minds’ propensity to wander is too strong. What you can do to take advantage is know when mind wandering is helping your cause and when it is a hindrance.
This is done by knowing your attention limitations. Attention is limited in both duration and scope.
When fully attended to something, ability to work within that area is greatly enhanced. Problems can be navigated to find a solution. However, extreme focus cannot be held for long. Whether it is outside distraction or fatigue, we will eventually lose our ability to maintain that intense focus and will begin to let our mind wander.
Counteract this by breaking your work into timed intervals aimed at maximizing focus while minimizing distracted work.
The most famous technique for doing this is the Pomodoro Technique. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, it involves using a timer to set intervals by which you take a short break after a period of intensely focused work (usually around 25 minutes).
Critics of the Pomodoro Technique believe that the technique micromanages too much of our daily work and thus is neither effective nor professional. Having a timer at our desk going off every 25 minutes sounds annoying and possibly distracting itself.
Depending on how mentally aroused we are, how much we are inspired by something, or how much energy we have, those periods of intense focus could vary drastically.
A more long term solution is to understand the kind of work we are doing and our personal ability to focus on it before needing a break. This could be different for each person and each activity. However, the advice remains the same: When you find yourself displaying an inclination to let your mind wander remove yourself from the situation and do something else for a bit.
Secondly, our focus is limited in scope. By very definition, when we focus on something we remove all other distractions, thoughts, and ideas.
This could blind us to possible solutions that take a different mindset.
When you come up against a problem like this and find yourself unable to continue, you can use what is described in a great educative video by the Sprouts Youtube channel: The Ping Pong Technique.
Start with a difficult problem. Once you get stuck, switch to a more simple one. While doing the easier problem your brain will keep the difficult problem in your working memory. Without conscious thought, your brain will look for connections and try to make sense of the initial, more difficult problem.
Remove yourself from the difficult problem, but not completely. Find something easier to take care of. Your mind will continue mulling over that tougher problem and your thoughts while solving the easy problem may shed new light on the tough one.
Understanding the limits of attention and the strengths of mind wandering allows you to know when to utilize each in the best manner.
Nicholas Malebranche, a French Philosopher, spoke of attention in his 1674 book, The Search After Truth :
It is therefore necessary to look for means to keep our perceptions from being confused and imperfect. And, because, as everyone knows, there is nothing that makes them clearer and more distinct than attentiveness, we must try to find the means to become more attentive than we are.
Mind wandering can be a grave hindrance to anyone attempting to learn a new concept or skill and can get in the way of engaging with the present activity. It is removed from the now, most of time involving thoughts of things that have already happened or never will. It is fleeting, disjointed thought usually leading to nowhere.
However, mind wandering isn’t all bad, as it can be useful for creativity, and will happen eventually, so it is necessary to be prepared. This is done through self-awareness, by realizing the kind of activity being done and how much energy will be needed to complete it.
The two main weaknesses of attention are duration and scope.
When focus begins to fail because of energy or distraction, remove yourself from the problem, do what is necessary to build that energy back up, and return for more.
When you encounter a difficult problem which can’t be solved, take a step away from it and engage in a more mentally light load. Your mind will remain active and you may notice something you hadn’t before. This takes advantage of the diffuse mode of thinking, which allows for more relaxed thoughts, connecting far-reaching neurons in your brain.
Push yourself to hold your attention on something for longer and longer. Train your executive control to be able to notice when your mind is wandering and snap you back out of it. Doing so will keep your mind sharp, something that will only get more important as you age and biology begins to work against you.