The Science Behind Mind-Wandering

Thursday, February 3, 2011

There are two kinds of mind-wandering;

Mind-wandering when you’re aware that you’re thinking about something else other than the task that you’re doing.

The act of mind-wandering without awareness is called zoning out, which happens naturally while we’re idle and also under the influence alcohol or drugs.

Unfortunately, while the amount of time spent zoning out doubles when people are drunk, they are more prone to miss connections, fail to encode memories and make more mistakes, studies confirmed. Surprise surprise.

The same research also revealed that drunken subjects reported less mind wandering only because they are less aware of their own minds. Aha.

On a positive note, scientists have found that a wandering mind is indeed crucial for planning goals, making discoveries and living a balanced life. There’s an “aha” moment for you.

In just a span of two decades, researchers in the field of neurology have come to regard mental leisure as a vital purposeful work that relies on a powerful network of brain cells firing in harmony – something that most would have scoffed off as utter rubbish. I say it could be even crap but hey let’s not speculate in ignorance shall we?

According to Jonathan W. Schooler, mind wandering allows us to work through some important thinking about our “self”, the past, present and the future and fill in the gaps in between to further solidify the idea who we are.

Based on one of his experiments, zoning out was found out to be the most productive type of mind wandering.

During zoning out, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study showed that the default network and executive control systems of the brain become more active than they usually are during the less extreme mind wandering with awareness.

When we are no longer even aware that our minds are wandering, we may then be able to think most deeply about the bigger picture. Most thinkers will agree on this without caring for elaborate experiments but still, yay to the scientists!

The said executive control system is located mainly at the front of the brain – where it exercises a top-down influence on our conscious and unconscious thought and directs the brain’s activity toward important goals involving planning, organizing and sequencing behavior for self-control, attention and moral judgement.

The default network is an interconnected and anatomically defined brain system that becomes more active during idle sitting in a brain scanner than when they were asked to perform a particular task.

It also becomes active during some form of self-reflective thinking – such as thinking about personal experiences or imagining oneself in the future, gauging people’s perspectives and weighing their personal values.

Brain scan results of subjects who have had a sudden insight that led them to solve a word puzzle showed that both default network and the executive control system became active during those creative moments.

As much of our mind wandering occurs without us realizing it, the solutions that the mind seems to have arrived at may come as a surprise.

Think about the character, Dr. House in the popular medical TV series House – the eccentric doctor almost always stumbled upon a simple solution to a presumed difficult medical case while caught up in a thought about something else following a conversation or a certain scene that is not at all related to the dilemma of the episode.

Fiction aside, this is not hard to imagine. We do this too. Albeit not to the discovery of an important remedy to rid the world off cancer, but we manage to gloriously secure a missing pair of glasses right atop of our shiny noses once we stop thinking too hard and let creative processes take over, right?

And did you know that the default mode network operations are disrupted in autism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and schizophrenia? Can you imagine the gem of practical knowledge that our curious scientists might come across which can help cure or prevent the development of these diseases in the future as more is understood from the idle brain activity?

Image Credit By Order Of Appearance
krish at

shanaz@RS | 12:08 AM | Labels:

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