New research reveals what happens in a wandering mind—and sheds light on the cognitive and emotional benefits of increased focus.
We’ve all been there. You’re slouched in a meeting or a classroom, supposedly paying attention, but your mind has long since wandered off, churning out lists of all the things you need to do—or that you could be doing if only you weren’t stuck here…
Suddenly you realize everyone is looking your way expectantly, waiting for an answer. But you’re staring blankly, grasping at straws to make a semi-coherent response. The curse of the wandering mind!
But don’t worry—you’re not alone. In fact, a recent study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert sampled over 2,000 adults during their day-to-day activities and found that 47 percent of the time, their minds were not focused on what they were currently doing. Even more striking, when people’s minds were wandering, they reported being less happy.
This suggests it might be good to find ways to reduce these mental distractions and improve our ability to focus. Ironically, mind-wandering itself can help strengthen our ability to focus, if leveraged properly. This can be achieved using an age-old skill: meditation. Indeed, a new wave of research reveals what happens in our brains when our minds wander—and sheds light on the host of cognitive and emotional benefits that come with increased focus.
What happens in the wandering mind?
For something that happens so often, what do we really know about this process of mind-wandering?
For thousands of years, contemplative practices such as meditation have provided a means to look inward and investigate our mental processes. It may seem surprising, but mind-wandering is actually a central element of focused attention (FA) meditation. In this foundational style of meditation, the practitioner is instructed to keep her attention on a single object, often the physical sensations of breathing.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s much easier said than done. Try it for a few minutes and see what happens.
If you’re like most people, before long your attention will wander away into rumination, fantasy, analyzing, planning. At some point, you might realize that your mind is no longer focused on the breath. With this awareness, you proceed to disengage from the thought that had drawn your mind away, and steer your attention back to your breath. A few moments later, the cycle will likely repeat.
At first it might seem like the tendency toward mind-wandering would be a problem for the practice of FA meditation, continually derailing your attention from the “goal” of keeping your mind on the breath.
However, the practice is really meant to highlight this natural trajectory of the mind, and in doing so, it trains your attention systems to become more aware of the mental landscape at any given moment, and more adept at navigating it. With repeated practice, it doesn’t take so long to notice that you’ve slipped into some kind of rumination or daydream. It also becomes easier to drop your current train of thought and return your focus to the breath. Those who practice say that thoughts start to seem less “sticky”—they don’t have such a hold on you.
As a neuroscientist and meditator, I’d long been fascinated with what might be happening in my brain when I meditate. Being familiar with both subjective, first-person meditative practice and objective, third-person scientific research, I wondered what would happen if I put these two modes of investigation together. Could I get a more fine-grained picture of how this process works in the brain by leveraging the experience of these cognitive shifts during meditation?
I started by considering the default mode network, a set of brain areas that tend to increase in activity when we’re not actively engaged in anything else—in other words, when our minds tend to wander. Maybe it was this default mode network that kept barging in during my meditation, interfering with my ability to keep my attention focused. And maybe this network was what I was learning to “tune down” by practicing over and over. I wondered if I could test this scientifically.
Supported by funding from the Mind & Life Institute, and with the help of colleagues at Emory University, I started to test which brain areas were related to meditation. We asked meditators to focus on their breath while we scanned their brains: whenever they realized their minds had been wandering, they’d press a button. Then they would return their focus to the breath as usual, and the practice would continue. As they did so, we collected MRI data showing which brain regions were active before, during, or after the button press that corresponded to various mental states.
The study, published in the journal NeuroImage, found that, indeed, during periods of mind-wandering, regions of the brain’s default mode network were activated. Then when participants became aware of this mind-wandering, brain regions related to the detection of salient or relevant events came online. After that, areas of the executive brain network took over, re-directing and maintaining attention on the chosen object. And all of this occurred within 12 seconds around those button presses.
Looking at activity in these brain networks this way suggests that when you catch your mind wandering, you are going through a process of recognizing, and shifting out of, default mode processing by engaging numerous attention networks. Understanding the way the brain alternates between focused and distracted states has implications for a wide variety of everyday tasks. For example, when your mind wandered off in that meeting, it might help to know you’re slipping into default mode—and you can deliberately bring yourself back to the moment. That’s an ability that can improve with training.
It’s not surprising—this kind of repeated mental exercise is like going to the gym, only you’re building your brain instead of your muscles. And mind-wandering is like the weight you add to the barbell—you need some “resistance” to the capacity you’re trying to build. Without mind-wandering to derail your attempts to remain focused, how could you train the skills of watching your mind and controlling your attention?
In our study, we also wanted to look at the effects of lifetime meditation experience on brain activity. In agreement with a growing number of studies, we found that experience mattered—those who were more experienced meditators had different levels of brain activity in the relevant networks. This suggests that their brains may have changed due to repeated practice, a process called neuroplasticity.
One brain area stood out in this analysis: the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the default mode network that is particularly related to self-focused thoughts, which make up a good portion of mind-wandering content. It turns out that experienced meditators deactivated this region more quickly after identifying mind-wandering than people who hadn’t meditated as much—suggesting they might be better at releasing distracting thoughts, like a re-hash of a personal To Do list or some slight they suffered at work yesterday.
In a follow-up study, we found that these same participants had greater coherence between activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and brain areas that allow you to disengage attention. This means that the brain regions for attentional disengagement have greater access to the brain regions underlying the distraction, possibly making it easier to disengage. Other findingssupport this idea—more experienced meditators have increased connectivity between default mode and attention brain regions, and less default mode activity while meditating.
This might explain how it feels easier to “drop” thoughts as you become more experienced in meditation—and thus better able to focus. Thoughts become less sticky because your brain gets re-wired to be better at recognizing and disengaging from mind-wandering. And if you’ve ever struggled with rumination—re-living a negative experience over and over, or stressing (unproductively) about an upcoming event—you can appreciate how being able to let go of your thoughts could be a huge benefit.
Indeed, the Killingsworth and Gilbert study I mentioned earlier found that when people’s minds were wandering, they tended to be less happy, presumably because our thoughts often tend towards negative rumination or stress. That’s why mindfulness meditation has become an increasingly important treatment of mental health difficulties like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even sexual dysfunction.
Reading all this might make you think that we’d be better off if we could live our lives in a constant state of laser-like, present moment focus. But a wandering mind isn’t all bad. Not only can we leverage it to build focus using FA meditation, but the capacity to project our mental stream out of the present and imagine scenarios that aren’t actually happening is hugely evolutionarily valuable, which may explain why it’s so prominent in our mental lives. These processes allow for creativity, planning, imagination, memory—capacities that are central not only to our survival, but also to the very essence of being human.
The key, I believe, is learning to become aware of these mental tendencies and to use them purposefully, rather than letting them take over. Meditation can help with that.
So don’t beat yourself up the next time you find yourself far away from where your mind was supposed to be. It’s the nature of the mind to wander. Use it as an opportunity to become more aware of your own mental experience. But you may still want to return to the present moment—so you can come up with an answer to that question everyone is waiting for.
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It is reprinted here with permission. Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and Senior Scientific Officer at the Mind & Life Institute.
The following is adapted from a commencement address Philip G. Zimbardo delivered at the University of Puget Sound earlier this month. Dr. Zimbardo, a giant in the field of social psychology, is now a professor at Palo Alto University, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, and the president of the Heroic Imagination Project. In the text of his talk below, we have embedded links to research supporting his advice to graduates.
As I now complete my 55th year of teaching psychology, I am ever more grateful for the unique opportunity we teachers each have to learn from and share in the youthful exuberance of our students.
Teachers who inspire their students are everyday heroes, who should be more treasured by our society, as should parents and guardians like you here today who have sacrificed much for the well-being and success of your longtime students.
I wish for all of you graduates a happy life and one that contributes to the collective good. To help you on your way, I want to lay out seven paths to personal happiness and collective well-being based on insights from my research on evil, heroism, time, shyness, and the power of the social situation.
So, here are Dr. Z’s seven paths to a fulfilling life, both personally and communally.
1. Use time wisely and well.
Time is our most precious asset, never to be wasted, and always to be used mindfully by balancing its three energy sources: Being well-grounded in a positive past that links you to your family, identity and culture; being open to the power of the hedonic present that connects you to the energy flow of the moment; and also in being motivated to succeed to the full extent of your ability in your hope-filled future that in turn, enables you to soar to new destinations.
With that temporal balance comes a new flexibility in adapting to the many situational challenges you will face. Respect and learn from the past, yours and those of others. Selectively immerse yourself in a present-orientation that fosters human connection and compassion, while opening you to appreciate nature and art more fully. Use its pleasures as self-rewards for the hard-earned successes you have won, and will achieve by being future-focused.
For several decades, you have been living a rather privileged life—one filled with the entitlement of being free from many societal obligations in order to think, to learn, to reason, to question, and to create. It is now time for you to more fully appreciate that gift by continuing to be a studious student for the rest of your life. As you do so, in Life 2.0, you will add on the commitment of making your community and your nation better in every way that you can.
For me, my continual joy in being a somewhat ever-older student means that I am always filled withcuriosity and wonder, asking why, discovering how, challenging ignorance, and demanding evidence for all assertions by the “true believers.”
3. Nurture your passions.
In addition to making your usual, to-do list of tasks for the day, try making a second private list of what it is that you really want in life each day. Discover what you really feel passionate about and make that an essential focus and energy source in your life.
Doing so means that passionate endeavors will become a source of personal pride, which will help guarantee that your life will never be “meaningless” to you when you look back on it in the future, as too many economically successful business people have sadly reported.
4. Transform shyness into social engagement.
Practice becoming the socially engaging host at life’s parties instead of resigning yourself to be its perpetually reluctant shy guest.
Just as we all have a choice of being a leader or a follower, we each choose whether or not to adopt a shy persona, or a more outgoing one. Shyness is a self-imposed social restriction that limits others from having access to your inner strengths and virtues because you have created that social barrier. My metaphor for shyness is that it is a self-imposed psychological prison, in which one gives up freedom of association and freedom of speech—the most prized and hard-won freedoms of any democracy. But it is our own thinking and feeling that makes it so, not any natural law of nature.
One unexpected joy of graduation and moving on to new venues is that no one there yet knows that you are shy, so you can start all over and fool them into being excited to come to your parties, where you will dance with them, like in novelist Nikos Kazantakis’ wonderful Zorba the Greek.
5. Remake your image.
It is time to trade in your familiar, comfortable habits for personally challenging, novel adventures that canliberate you from the boredom of predictability. From time to time, consider violating the expectations others have about what you are expected to do, or you have come to do routinely and mindlessly.
To rise above the mundane, it is time to take more calculated risks, to learn from your mistakes, to try harder and think wiser the next time around. The simple solution for avoiding cognitive dissonance when your decisions do not work as you had hoped is to practice saying, “I made a mistake. I’m sorry, forgive me, Let’s move on.”
6. Become a positive deviant.
One source of negative group power is the pervasive pressure of social norms over each of us to not take action in emergency situations, to not get involved, to mind our own business, to do nothing when we know we should do something.
Most of us, when we witness examples of bystander apathy, typically say, “I would have gotten involved!” However, when we are actually caught up in the social drama of the social situation, the majority of us cave into the social norm of being helpless, mindless bystanders.
Time to change that. Practice being a social deviant in small ways to experience the power others have over you. Try putting a black dot on your face for a day. When questioned about this out of character marking, simply say, “I just felt like doing it, no big deal.” If you can resist the pressures friends and family and strangers will most likely impose on you to get rid of it, you will have gained a new sense of inner power of the one over the many.
Last, and for me most important, is path seven.
7. Train yourself to become an everyday hero.
Finally, it is time to start a new social revolution by becoming a willing social change agent, prepared to change the world for the better, each day in some way, by standing up, speaking out, and taking action, to do the Right Thing when others are doing the Wrong Thing, or the No Thing. You will make a commitment to challenge all evil in whatever forms it takes, doing so with moral courage linked to righteous integrity.
Let the most valued private virtues of compassion and empathy be your guiding light, but let readiness to engage in everyday heroic action be your daily goal and your most respected civic virtue. Develop a personal code of honor that you are willing to share with others.
Heroism can be developed, can be taught, and can be trained, like other vital individual characteristics, such as assertiveness and mindfulness. Heroism is acting on behalf of others in need or in defense of a moral cause despite potential risks and costs. Thus, it requires a socio-centric orientation rather than an egocentric one. Egocentrism, like pessimism and cynicism, is an enemy of heroism.
You will be more likely to notice someone in need if you have developed the daily habit of opening yourself to other people by routinely noticing what others are doing and imagining what they are feeling. One way to do so each day, in some way, is by trying to make other people feel special, respected, and valued—by sharing with them justifiable complements, while acknowledging their unique individuality.
Also remember that when people are organized into action networks, they carry out the most effective heroism, not as solo warriors. So learn to persuade others to share your vision of what needs fixing, by assembling your buddies into a Hero Squad to challenge collectively the evils of action, such as bullying, gender violence, discrimination, corruption, fraud, slave labor and sex trafficking, while also opposing the more pervasive evils of inaction, such as ignoring the threats of the devastating consequences of global climate change, and the failure to remedy the socio-economic devastation of our Native Americans by decades of non-action or wrong actions of our government agencies.
The challenges before you are many, the opportunities endless, all awaiting your solutions, your youthful energies, and most of all, your glowing idealism ready to be infused into a new kind of smart and wise social activism that can reshape our society in the next decades.
My call to action: Just Do It—But Do It Heroically.
Go forth in peace and joy and love to remake the world for the better, bit by bit, person by person, cause by cause, and heroic action by action.
This article is printed here with permission. It originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC). Based at UC Berkeley, the GGSC studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.
Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, a professor at Palo Alto University, a two-time past president of the Western Psychological Association, and a past president of the American Psychological Association. He is also the author of the best-selling book The Lucifer Effect and the president of the Heroic Imagination Project.
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