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The art and science of mind wandering

by
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
Ness Labs
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Mind-wandering is when we are physically in place while our mind is in another place. Some see mind wandering as a negative habit that needs to be controlled, and others see it as a creative necessity. The truth is more balanced. There is an art and science to mind wandering.

Mind-wandering Through the Ages

Many thoughts, feelings, and images fill our consciousness without any active thinking. Researchers have found that our minds have been wandering for more than 2,000 years. Humans have been seeking the right balance between focused thinking and mind wandering.

Researchers have assessed mind wandering on three dimensions:

  1. How vivid the person’s thoughts are
  2. How deep into the thought the person goes
  3. How many of those thoughts are based on guilt or fear

The Neuroscience of Mind Wandering

  • Research seeks to understand how the brain generates the unconstrained thoughts experienced by mind wanderers.
  • The brain is constantly busy. Even in default mode - the resting state of the brain - our mind wanders.

A Constant Mental Oscillation

The mind constantly oscillates between two modes of thinking - focused and diffused. 1. Focused Thinking: when the brain works hard to understand a problem at hand, trying to explore potential solutions actively 2. Diffused Thinking: when the mind is wandering or “day dreaming.”

Directed Distraction

Mental wandering is not good or bad; it is what we make it that matters. This is how a person can cope with mind-wandering better: 1. Accept Mental oscillations 2. Take conscious breaks 3. Deal with negative mind wandering Mind-wandering, in conclusion, is a great ability but poorly understood.

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