Why Our Minds Wander

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Even as I read an article about mind-wandering, my mind wanders away from its own topic, jolted by mild panic because I forgot to defrost the chicken breasts, seduced by the chance of crisp autumn weather next week, tempted to buy cider and spiced donuts….

Is this evidence, then, that mind-wandering helps prepare us for the future? That is one thesis of psychologist Jonathan Smallwood. A quarter-century ago, he was surprised that no one had studied the idle detours our brain makes every chance it gets. But how could anyone study them? Only when the technology of brain scans improved could researchers begin to compare states of mind with any reliability.

By then, Smallwood had already begun setting boring tasks for his study participants and asking them when and why their minds wandered—and toward what subjects. Mine are a hopscotch of chores, as thoughts of the hosta I just transplanted remind me of the need to move an ailing rosebush and then I wonder what I might put in its stead and think how hard it is to find brightly colored flowers that bloom in partial shade—a word that has all sorts of interesting meanings, depending on whether it is cast or thrown or sought….

Unhappy minds tend to wander through the past, Smallwood has learned, and contented minds wander toward the future. The relationship cuts both ways: when we are in a bad mood, our thoughts are more likely to wander through the past, and when they do, our mood often darkens a bit more. Dwelling, ruminating, wearing a groove in an unchangeable past—we all recognize the trap. But here is the real surprise: when our minds wander toward the future, that is linked to a positive mood—even when the thoughts themselves are not cheery.

We worry when our minds wander. We are not getting anything done! Our brain is distracting us from what matters. But is it? Smallwood maintains that mind-wandering is rarely a waste of time, is instead our brain’s attempt to get a little work done in a moment that feels empty and dull. If we dwell and ruminate, locked into a depressed spiral of negative thoughts, then mind-wandering is working against us. But letting the mind drift like a rowboat, its oars slid under the seat, can free creativity, allowing wilder, more varied ideas to bubble up without censorship. Just typing that sentence was enough to take me to a placid lake and remind me how good it would feel to dive through that glassy surface and make some waves—and no wonder they call it that at the baseball game, we missed going to a Grizzlies game this summer, why do mascots seem so real?

Gently, the meditation teachers say, bring the monkey-mind back from its climbs and scampers. Either it is daydreaming with full, brazen permission, or it is wandering away from structure, obligation, expectation. In both cases, thoughts arise spontaneously, outside our conscious control. This is the default mode network, discovered in 2001 by neurologist Marcus Raichle, the Alan A. and Edith L. Wolff Distinguished Professor of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. Scanning the brains of relaxed volunteers, he realized that the brain is active all the time; even when we are sleeping or daydreaming, it is operating nearly at full capacity. Without our bidding.

This default mode is highly organized, sucking up most of the energy the brain consumes. So it must be important, right? “Most of what the brain’s doing,” Raichle told one interviewer, “it’s doing spontaneously all the time.” I suppose that includes the charade of convincing us we are in charge. Without James Joyce, would we have ever realized how pervasive and weird human thoughts are? So easy (yet startling) to recognize mine in Molly’s….

A wandering mind has slipped its moorings, severing connection with its immediate environment. No longer paying attention to what it can perceive in the surrounding world, it turns inward, self-referential, occupied by dreams and memories and stray thoughts. Instead of musing about what its partnered body is experiencing, reading, hearing, thinking, it slides away to a different destination altogether. The common denominator? The self. Our thoughts, our worries, our hopes.

This, I suspect, is why the Buddhists and the Amish manage such sanity. They combat self-absorption by focusing the mind on simple, concrete tasks, tying it firmly into the present tense. Neurologically, this is far more effective than urging charity or mumbling hypnotic rote prayers. When the mind is engaged in tasks, the default mode network quiets. We “lose ourselves” in our work. We “forget ourselves.”

And then we finish shucking the corn or pouring the tea and return to ourselves, our memories, our dreams, our mind’s ability to separate from immediacy and travel the world. It is, after all, our singular human trait. I was taught that language, symbol-making, made us human, but I see far too much of that in other animals’ communication. Moving through time, though? That is our talent and our curse, depending on how unpleasant and intrusive the memories are, how distracting the dreams. Best case, we wonder as we wander. Worst case, we distract ourselves from accomplishment. People with ADHD struggle to keep their minds focused, yet exhibit extraordinary creativity; it seems to me that might be because they spend so much time in the default mode network? Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who has ADHD himself, calls the DMN “the demon of ADHD,” writing that it “seems to be more active in those of us who have ADHD, and it may explain our tendency to make ‘careless’ mistakes.”

For the rest of us, another network, the Task Positive Network, comes on when we tackle a task, giving the DMN a break. But if you have ADHD, the relationship is not reciprocal. Instead, “the DMN remains active while the TPN is active. This competition provides a neurological explanation for what those of us who have ADHD feel so often — a persistent, magnetic pull away from the task at hand into distraction.” The distraction is seldom pleasant; more often, it is a ruminating, intense self-consciousness, a remembering of uncomfortable experiences or information that sends the mood downward. The DMN, Hallowell concludes, “can ensnare a person, especially someone with an active imagination and a keen intellect, and reduce that person to misery.”

The DMN can do the same to anyone suffering major depression, tilting them inward, rehearsing the past’s pain, sending them spiraling downward. It is tempting to want the network erased altogether, and with it our mind’s wanderlust. But Smallwood warns us off.

“I think things like mind-wandering are attempts by the brain to make sense of what has happened, so that we can behave better in the future,” he tells the Smithsonian. The attempts might be excessive or misguided or poorly timed, preventing us from learning anything beyond our own capacity for unhappiness. But when balanced? “I think this type of thinking is a really ingrained part of how our species has conquered the world.”

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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