The nature of mind is to wander
We live in a world of control. For centuries, mankind has devised all sorts of methods, paths and commandments. All of these methods relate to moral discipline and ultimately some form of liberation or inner peace.
We can think of the Ten Commandments in the Christian faith. The 8 limbs of Yoga in Patanjali’s system. The Eightfold Path in Buddhism amongst others. In today’s age, we live in the era of ‘influencers’.
There is also the assumption that one should always live in the present moment, and that ‘mind-wandering’ is bad.
Is this so?
It is often said that the aim of life is to live with purpose and presence. However the nature of the mind is to wander. For those who are familiar with mindfulness meditation, you will know that the mind drifts from its object of attention (usually the breath) into thought with casual ease. It is then gently guided back and the whole process starts all over again.
Some studies suggest that the mind wanders up to 30-50% of our daily lives. I’m not surprised. I’d probably estimate an even higher number based on my own experience.
What does the science say?
“The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Other studies even suggest that people do not prefer to be alone with their thoughts. Hence, the popularity of external stimuli, such as the news and social media. The study also suggests that people would prefer a mild electric shock than being alone by themselves with their thoughts.
What is mind-wandering?
There appears to be no universal definition of ‘mind-wandering’. Wikipedia says that mind-wandering is:
“In general, a folk explanation of mind-wandering could be described as the experience of thoughts not remaining on a single topic for a long period of time, particularly when people are engaged in an attention-demanding task.”
So when you think of methods to improve your concentration, mindfulness is probably the one ‘tool’ you could use.
Yes, through meditation you can improve your concentration and awareness. However, the mind at the end of the day is almost impossible to control.
The aim of mindfulness meditation is in fact to become familiar with the habits of your mind, and to adopt a friendly attitude towards it. Specifically when the mind wanders, you notice that, with curiosity and kindness. If you meditate regularly, you will be intimately familiar with how much the mind likes to wander, which varies from day to day.
What is the mind ‘wandering’ about?
Furthermore, some studies suggest that it is not mind-wandering per se that causes unhappiness, but the tendency to be less aware of the present moment that causes suffering.
This to me makes sense. If the very basis of mindfulness is to recognise when the mind is wandering, then the practice of mindfulness helps you adopt a friendly attitude towards yourself. In other words, mindfulness helps to bring about states of mind which observe the natural tendency of the mind to wander.
Another study suggests that if the item of distraction is of ‘high interest’, then that may result in a positive mood. It just goes to show that it’s just not the mind has wandered, but what object occupies the mind’s attention.
As much as I am not a scientist, I put forward the idea that mind-wandering is a natural state of mind. It can help bring balance to an otherwise highly engaged and often stressful world. I believe that science can offer insights into the inner workings of the mind, but direct experience is also important.
Here’s 4 reasons why mind-wandering is good for you.
1. Mind-wandering encourages creativity.
When the mind is in an active state of rest, then the greater potential for moments of creativity arise. A study suggests this occurs through the ‘default neural network’ of the brain. Here, spontaneous thoughts arise in the mind and contributes to your ‘inner life’. This includes internal mental-state processes such as rumination, interoception, recollection of your life spent and imagination about the future.
One of my favourite sayings is that ‘you need to create space to create‘. For me, I find these moments of creativity when I leave whatever I am doing and distract myself. For example, by going for a walk – ideas just pop into my mind and I go with them. It’s almost on cue.
2. Mind-wandering can make you happier.
Some studies suggest that when people are engaged in topics or musings that are random and interesting, there is a positive correlation with mood. This goes back to the idea that it is not the mind-wandering, but what the mind is focusing on when it wanders.
Of course, you notice this when you allow your mind to run where it conjures up some secret fantasy. It could relate to your political views, it could relate to the consumption of social media.
I think you’ve all gone down the ‘rabbit hole’ from time to time. This is often the case when you open a random link and find yourself engrossed in something completely different. It happens.
3. Mind-wandering may improve job performance.
‘ZOOM Fatigue‘ was a common complaint during the pandemic. Others will also know the experience of being in a meeting that is particularly dry and tedious. Whilst concentration is important, when the mind wanders, the brain can ‘reset’ itself. This gives the mind an opportunity to regain focus and attention. In other words, think of when the mind wanders as a mini ‘mindspa’ or break for the mind.
Remember, concentration involves ‘conscious’ effort and is hard. Having a break is healthy.
Of course each job is different. Some require more concentration than others (eg surgeons and bus drivers). Yet in others, some relaxation in between periods of intense concentration could in fact improve productivity.
4. Mind-wandering may help with goal-setting.
The ability to really identify what is important to a person may in fact be best served when the mind wanders. In times of intense concentration, there may be a bodily response in terms of the release of adrenalin and cortisol. This may inhibit the successful activation of those parts of the brain responsible for goal-setting. Specifically, the area between the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex.
What is the implication? If you relax the mind, then you create space to focus on what you really want. That said, the achievement of goals may be a different matter if the mind regularly wanders. So a certain level of discipline is in fact required.
Thich Naht Hanh in his wonderful book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, suggests you should dedicate ‘days’ to mindfulness. Whilst this may help improve your wellbeing, you need to remember that ‘mindlessness’ is in fact just a part of life as is practising ‘mindfulness’. You need to strike the right balance between the two. To this extent, mind-wandering is an entirely healthy, if not productive part of every day human life.