The human brain spends much of its time wandering, whether it be while working or performing routine tasks like running errands. Mind-wandering occurs when a person is thinking about something other than the task, such as past events or things yet to come. The brain goes into default mode, allowing all thoughts to pass through. It can be helpful to understand the pros and cons of mind-wandering, including how it can affect mental health.
What Is Mind-Wandering?
The human brain is a complex organ that scientists are still trying to understand. One phenomenon that is currently being explored is mind-wandering.
The brain can think about something totally different from what is currently being experienced. This ability is harnessed in some forms of guided meditation, where the participant visualizes imagery and imagines sensations they might feel if they were really there. The brain can also drift off towards uncomfortable thoughts that cause a person to worry.
Mind-wandering can have positive and negative implications that depend on the individual and the context in which this occurs.
Passing the Time & Fostering Creativity
It turns out that mind-wandering can be helpful when a person is performing a tedious, routine task; time passes by quicker.
This practice also creates the mental space to process and consolidate whatever cognitive artifacts are floating around in the psyche, akin to what happens when a person is asleep. The subconscious may be working on items that have not surfaced to the conscious level.
This freedom facilitates creative expression that may lead to personal insights or innovations. Creative ideas often need time and space to be pieced together to produce a final product.
Planning for the Future
Letting the mind drift is therapeutic and can support goal achievement and a meaningful sense of self. Studies have shown that mind-wandering can “integrate past and present experiences for the purpose of future planning and simulation.” Thoughts are often focused on future outcomes and achieving personal goals, which are accompanied by planning and reasoning about the next steps.
These benefits may come as a surprise. Allowing the mind to wander is very different than the holistic advice to “remain in the present moment”. If being mindful of “the now” is a tip to stay happy and healthy, could mind-wandering sometimes hurt a person’s wellbeing?
Like most things, having balance is indeed important. One study found that mind-wandering can increase heart rate and cause difficulty falling asleep. However, these effects did not persist.
It has been found that a person’s perception might be impaired because less attention is on sensory input and more is on fabricated ideas of certain tasks. This could be risky when a person needs to take precise environmental cues like driving or operating machinery.
Lower Cognitive Performance
Thoughts suddenly popping up can also be a distraction when trying to complete tasks requiring cognitive effort for long periods. Mind-wandering has been associated with poor performance on sustained attention tasks like reading, as well as:
- fluid intelligence
- working memory
A study discussed in The Greater Good Magazine article titled Does Mind-Wandering Make You Unhappy? found that people are less happy when their minds are wandering. They also found that two aspects of mind-wandering are more predictive of happiness than income: how often wandering occurs and the content of these thoughts.
Although some studies suggest that a person who is already unhappy may be prone to drifting, this study at UC Berkeley supports the idea that mind-wandering can cause a bad mood.
Connections to Mental Health
Mind-wandering has been found in disorders that cause abnormal cognition, like dysphoria and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. One analysis demonstrated that those “who reported more depressive symptoms, schizotypal personality, and divergent thinking, were more likely to engage in mind-wandering.”
Those who have or are at risk of mental health disorders may be more prone to mind-wander and be more vulnerable to the consequences it has on mood. For instance, a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder already struggles with intrusive thoughts and rumination. Letting the mind wander as it naturally does with anxiety disorders can lead to disruptive psychological, physiological, and behavioral symptoms.
The Main Point
People naturally move from thought to thought over the course of the day. In some respects, mind-wandering has value. In other respects, it is detrimental to a person’s cognitive and mental health. Learning to recognize when this is occurring can help a person refocus their attention if necessary for the task or pull the reins in on thoughts that may lead to rumination.
Mind-wandering occurs when attention is pulled away from the current moment towards something that has occurred in the past or will occur in the future. This practice has benefits and negative consequences that a person should keep in mind. In some situations, it is appropriate to let this happen, but in others, it will be important for a person to employ mental disciple to redirect their attention. Avalon Malibu is a treatment center for adults with substance use disorders and mental conditions. We are located in Malibu, CA. Those with mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorders, and depression may struggle with poor concentration and facing thoughts. Cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness techniques can help clients gain greater control over their minds. This aids in both emotional and behavioral regulation. For information about our mental health treatment programs, call: (844) 857-5992