Why our minds keep wandering half the time?


Lord of Penmai
Jul 5, 2011
Why our minds keep wandering half the time

Researchers investigating the mental processes underlying a wandering mind have identified a role for working memory, a kind of a mental workspace that lets people juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously.

Imagine you see your neighbour upon arriving home one day and schedule a lunch date.

On your way to add it to your calendar, you stop to turn off the drippy faucet, feed the cat, and add milk to your grocery list.

The capacity that allows you to retain the lunch information through those unrelated tasks, is working memory.

The new study by lead author Daniel Levinson and professor Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, reports that a person's working memory capacity relates to the tendency of their mind to wander during a routine assignment.

The researchers asked volunteers to perform one of two simple tasks - either pressing a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or simply tapping in time with one's breath - and compared people's propensity to drift off.

"We intentionally use tasks that will never use all of their attention," Smallwood explained, "and then we ask, how do people use their idle resources?"

Throughout the tasks, the researchers checked in periodically with the participants to ask if their minds were on task or wandering.

At the end, they measured each participant's working memory capacity, scored by their ability to remember a series of letters given to them interspersed with easy math questions.

In both tasks, there was a clear correlation.

"People with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these simple tasks," said Levinson, though their performance on the test was not compromised.

The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.

"What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren't very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing," Smallwood said.

Interestingly, when people were given a comparably simple task but filled with sensory distractors (such as lots of other similarly shaped letters), the link between working memory and mind wandering disappeared.

"Giving your full attention to your perceptual experience actually equalized people, as though it cut off mind wandering at the pass," Levinson said.

"Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life - when they're on the bus, when they're cycling to work, when they're in the shower - are probably supported by working memory," said Smallwood.

"Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems," Smallwood added.

The study has been published online in the journal Psychological Science.

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