Ever started day-dreaming in the middle of a meeting? Or found yourself lying awake in the middle of the night thinking about all the chances you didn’t take?
Well, you’re not alone.
Mind-wandering – or the process of having thoughts that’s not immediately related to your current task or environment – is a universally human experience. In fact, humans might be the only species who actually does this: spend a lot of time contemplating past or future events or even completely imaginary scenarios.
Scientists call this phenomenon ‘stimulus-independent thought’ and many believe that it’s the brain’s default mode – that we are hardwired to disassociate from our surroundings and let our minds wander without even realizing it. It might occupy as much as half of our waking day.
What happens when your mind wanders?
When the human brain is not occupied with an external task, certain regions of the brain – such as the prefrontal cortex – are activated by default. These regions are referred to as the ‘default network’.
Research shows that when our mind wanders, it is this default network of the brain that is activated, producing internally-focused thoughts.
Some scientists believe that this is the ‘me-centre’ of the brain that produces thoughts related to how we perceive ourselves.
Mind-wandering is inversely proportional to how much our brain is occupied with our current task. While mind-wandering can happen simultaneously with whatever it is we’re doing, it reduces with the amount of brainpower that our external task requires, and increases if it’s a task that we’re already familiar with.
A wandering mind can lead to unhappiness
Although this is the ‘default mode’ of the brain, very little was known about the impact that mind-wandering had on our emotions and behavior till a breakthrough study in 2010, where researchers at Harvard University developed an app to get real-time reports from people to track their thoughts and happiness levels as they went about their day.
Predictably, people’s minds kept wandering throughout all activities in nearly half of the people that were tracked. (Interestingly, the only time people’s minds didn’t wander was when they were making love!) The study also found that people reported being less happy when their mind wandered than when they were fully focused on the task at hand – regardless of whether their mind was thinking happy, neutral or negative thoughts.
Which goes to show that while the human mind tends to wander as its default mode, it could also make us unhappier.
Is all mind-wandering bad?
When our mind wanders, it’s often spontaneous; we don’t realize that our thoughts have strayed away from the task at hand. But there are instances when we are conscious of the fact that our mind has wandered. This is what scientists call ‘meta-awareness’ or ‘meta-consciousness’.
When mind-wandering is deliberate or intentional, it’s closely associated with creativity, imagination and problem-solving. It allows us to imagine scenarios that don’t exist.
With training, we can become more aware of when our mind is wandering, and bring it back to the task at hand. This is the skill that mindfulness meditation practice teaches us – to literally ‘be in the moment’ and, even more importantly, recognize when we’re not.
If mind-wandering leads to increased unhappiness, conversely, training the mind to be continually in the moment can help us feel more present and make us happier in the long run.