Mind Wandering: Examples, Symptoms And Treatment

Examples and types of mind wandering, the symptoms, benefits and potential treatments for a drifting mind.

mind wandering

Examples and types of mind wandering, the symptoms, benefits and potential treatments for a drifting mind.

Up to half of our daily thoughts involve mind wandering or a drifting mind.

Unfortunately, when left to its own devices the mind almost always wanders to negative thoughts and brings us down.

Mind wandering in general is often associated with increased stress and a lack of academic success.

But daydreaming can be seen as a sign of being more creative and having higher intelligence, research finds.

Those who report more daydreaming have higher intellectual abilities and their brains work more efficiently.

Here are more examples of mind wandering from the research, including symptoms, benefits and potential treatments.

1. Memory benefits

Part of the function of mind wandering is to allow the brain to work on our memories, research suggests.

Mind wandering — which may make up 50 percent of our daily thinking time — is experienced as a kind of zoning out from what is going on around us.

During this time, researchers have found, many areas of the brain quiet themselves to focus on output from the hippocampus.

The output from the hippocampus is very weak, which the researchers charmingly describe as whispering.

So, the rest of the brain has to be particularly quiet to listen and further encode these memories for long-term storage.

2. Types of mind wandering

There are two types of mind wandering — each with a different experience.

Mind wandering tends to be seen in a negative way, but zoning out on purpose can help creative thinking and problems solving.

Research has identified a vital difference between intentional and unintentional mind wandering.

It reveals how intentional mind wandering feels different from accidental mind wandering.

The study’s authors explain:

“We suspect that when people are completing an easy task, they may be inclined to deliberately disengage from the task and engage in mind wandering.

This might be the case because easy tasks tend to be rather boring, or because people realize that they can get away with mind wandering without sacrificing performance.

Conversely, when completing a difficult task, people really need to focus on the task in order to perform well, so if they do mind-wander, their mind wandering should be more likely to occur unintentionally.”

3. Intentional daydreaming

Some types of mind wandering may be highly beneficial to our brains, and our futures.

Intentional daydreaming is linked to a thicker cortex (a good thing) in certain key areas of the brain, research finds.

Directing the mind to wander is a cognitive skill that can be beneficial in some contexts.

For example, it can allow us to mentally rehearse upcoming events, or solve problems we might encounter.

In other words, it allows the brain to work out possible futures for us.

So, mind wandering is not always a failure of self-control that is inevitably linked to mistakes.

The key is whether it is intentional or not.

4. Creative mind wandering example

The incubation effect: this is simply that taking a break from a problem often brings an insight later on.

We know it from experience and psychological research has proven it.

About 50 different studies have been carried out on the incubation effect and three-quarters of them find an effect.

Mind wandering probably plays an important role in the process of creative problem-solving.

A study has found that a moderately engaging activity like showering or walking produces more creative ideas.

They appear to work because they engage the mind somewhat, but also allow it freedom to wander.

5. Mind wandering and depression

Mind wandering is often seen in a negative way, though, and with good reason.

The minds of people with depressive tendencies wander in characteristic ways, research finds.

Depressive people find their thoughts automatically narrowing to negative past events.

Instead of naturally jumping to other more positive topics, as other people’s do, their thoughts focus on the negative.

This style of thinking is called rumination, and is strongly linked to depression.

Mind wandering towards depressive thoughts is a key sign of depressive tendencies, but is not the usual pattern for people.

6. Signs of mind wandering

When a person starts to blink more rapidly, it suggests their mind is wandering, research finds.

Blinking sets up a tiny barrier against the outside world, allowing the brain to focus on something different.

The researchers were inspired by neuroscientific findings that parts of the brain are less active when the mind wanders.

Dr Daniel Smilek, the study’s first author, said:

“And we thought, OK, if that’s the case, maybe we’d see that the body would start to do things to prevent the brain from receiving external information.

The simplest thing that might happen is you might close your eyes more.”

They were right — the results showed people blinked more when they had switched off from the text and were thinking of something else.

7. Stop mind wandering while reading

Paying attention to what you are reading can be hard — especially in this age of endless distraction.

Practising meditation, though, can help improve your focus while reading, a study finds.

Maintaining attention when reading can be difficult, as the study’s authors write:

“It is challenging for individuals to maintain their attention on ongoing cognitive tasks without being distracted by task-unrelated thought.

The wandering mind is thus a considerable obstacle when attention must be maintained over time.

Mental training through meditation has been proposed as an effective method of attenuating the ebb and flow of attention to thoughts and feelings that distract from one’s foremost present goals.”

8. Anxiety treatment

A lack of concentration can be combated using a short form of mindfulness training, a study of undergraduates finds.

Just ten minutes of mindfulness each day is also an effective treatment against repetitive anxious thoughts, research reveals.

People in the study who meditated for only a short period found it easier to focus on their present-moment external experience rather than their internal thoughts.

Mr Mengran Xu, the study’s first author, said:

“Our results indicate that mindfulness training may have protective effects on mind wandering for anxious individuals.

We also found that meditation practice appears to help anxious people to shift their attention from their own internal worries to the present-moment external world, which enables better focus on a task at hand.”


Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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