The Confusing Science of Wandering Minds, Focused Attention, and Well-Being


An interesting study out of Harvard confirmed last year that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” But, what about the evidence suggesting that letting the mind wander can actually be helpful for concentration and memory. What do these seemingly conflicting findings mean for your Mindfulness meditation practice?

You’ve probably heard people talk about the importance of staying present in the moment. Well, an interesting new study out of Harvard confirmed last that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” That should provide further motivation to use meditation to stay present. But, judging from some of the other recent news from the science of human attention, the story is a little more complex than that. Take for instance, some of the compelling evidence that letting the mind wander can actually be helpful for concentration and memory. What do these seemingly conflicting findings mean for your Mindfulness meditation practice? Let’s see.

The study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard University just came out in the Science – perhaps the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. The researchers used smart phones to ask 2,250 participants, at random times, what they were doing at that moment, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral or unpleasant. Amazingly, on average, people reported that their mind was wandering about 47% of the time and no less than 30% of the time during all activities (except sex!). People were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working or using a home computer. However, it turns out that what you think about is more important than what you are doing. “How often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged,” Killingsworth says. The authors go on to suggest that “the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” They conclude the paper by saying that “many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to be here now. These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

Now consider a different line of research suggesting that mind wandering is actually a good thing. Eric Klinger from the University of Minnesota argues that the ability to think about things other than the unbearable present (stuck in traffic?) is an asset because it “serves as a kind of reminder mechanism, thereby increasing the likelihood that the other goal pursuits will remain intact and not get lost in the shuffle of pursuing many goals.” (Incidentally, I think this is why many people in my Mindfulness groups prefer not to do their Mindful eating meditation over lunch; they tend to rely on this break as a time to loosen their thinking and check back in with the big picture.)

Apparently, this state of “Mindwanderness” (Mindfulness’ ugly cousin?) is actually the default setting of the brain’s attention circuits. When we want to concentrate on something for a sustained period, the executive network of the brain (part of the frontal lobes) has to inhibit this default circuit and actively keep us on task. But this is a demanding process, so we tend to zone out easily and often – some estimate 10% of the time, I suspect it’s more – and rely on meta-awareness to bring ourselves back on task. Unfortunately, we have a limited amount of mental resources to sustain that kind of directed attention, according to University of Michigan brain scientist Marc Berman. In short, we get tired. In that sense, the frontal executive network is not that different from a muscle that gets tired after a workout. You need to take breaks and recover before you can use the muscle effectively again.

That line of thinking is at the heart of an exciting new movement in education, which pushes for children to spend more of their school time outdoors, in nature. Marc Berman argues that nature offers “soft fascination,” in that natural stimuli spontaneously call our attention, without overwhelming us (think waves on the water, a fluttering butterly, or leaves rustling in the wind). This means that the brain’s other attention network – the one that supports effortful, directed attention – gets to rest. According to Berman’s attention restoration theory: “Urban settings aren’t as restful because they require more vigilance to avoid cars, buses or other hazards. Television, movies and computer games may be too absorbing to allow the circuitry involved in paying attention to recharge.” So far, the data have provided clear support for “attention restoration theory:” students that spend time in nature consistently score better on attention and memory tasks (and may even be more creative). Research us currently under way to understand how much nature is needed and how all of this plays out in the brain.

So what are the implications for Mindfulness practice? Is it time to give Mindwanderness another chance? Well, that depends on what you mean by Mindfulness. Many beginners tend to think that Mindfulness involves having a completely clear and relaxed mind; that with practice and discipline, they will get better at suppressing distraction and staying focused. While it’s true that Mindfulness can help cultivate better focus, it is about more than that. It is about being awake in life – being aware of the impact the quality of our attention has on our experience. The study by Killingsworth and Gilbert supports the ancient principle that attention in the present moment is a key to happiness. Our ability to think about things other than the present means that we can waste all kinds of time ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Meanwhile, life is passing us by. But staying present in the moment doesn’t necessarily mean keeping a sustained, narrow focus on one object of attention. Letting our attention be guided by the flow of stimuli in nature – what Mindfulness people called “choiceless awareness” – is another excellent way to be present in the moment. In fact, the research reviewed here suggests that cultivating that choiceless awareness may actually help us to concentrate and remember things at work later in the day. Ultimately, the practice of Mindfulness helps you become more aware of how you are paying attention right now. From there, it’s up to you to decide what to do about it. Do I still have enough mental juice to finish reading that memo? Or is it time to take a break and let the mind wander for a bit? Either way, you’re awake and aware of the options so that you can make optimal decisions for yourself. I’m feeling pretty drained at the moment, so it’s time for me to go for a run on the mountain.


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