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.
** This is a repost from: http://www.begracefull.com/let-the-journey-begin/ **
Please see this as a journey of discovery into who and what a spiritual path is for you. Please take some time and think about the questions in BOLD CAPS. Based on the scripture that is just below the question take a moment to write your answer on a piece of paper. If the results do not astonish you at first give it some time and let these ideas soak into your soul and let the journey begin!
LAW AND GRACE
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE LAW?
Romans 3:19,20- “… that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”
Romans 4:15- “….the law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
Romans 5:13,20- “….until, the law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law. …And the law came in that transgression might increase…” Continue reading
In the film, The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star as terminally ill acquaintances on a quest to complete a wish list of activities before they “kick the bucket.” As a result of the movie, the phrase “bucket list” entered into American vocabulary to describe the things a person dreams of doing sometime during his life. In this article, I’d like to discuss instead a life-list: a personalized list of things you want to do every day in your life. This list is motivated by dreaming about the sort of person you aspire to be rather than the kinds of things you want to do.
Since a life-list is intended to include only what you see yourself doing daily, it should meet the following criteria:
1) Your life-list should consist of just a few things.
2) Your life-list should consist of only the most important things.
3) Your life-list should reflect your values.
4) Your life-list should be your life-list. In other words, it should not be based on considerations of the kind of person others expect you to be, but instead on the person you dream of becoming.
One of the tendencies in creating a life-list is to pile onto it every conceivable idea you have of good things you could do each day. But let’s face it: a long list of anything is discouraging. If you end up with 40 things, it will be intimidating just to read through them each day—and virtually impossible to do them. Instead of lifting you, an overly long life-list becomes a burden and is quickly discarded. To keep the life-list from being overwhelming, pare it down until you have only a handful of items of extreme importance to you. It’s better to make a life-list of only two things you actually review and do each day, than to create a life-list of 40 things that ends up in the trashcan.
Why do I feel so strongly about developing a life-list? If you write down and live out a life-list, it will become your legacy. We are known by what we repeatedly do. How we spend each day, taken in total, determines the mark we make on this world.
When you are eighty years old, sitting on the porch in a rocking chair and looking back on your life, how will you feel? You won’t have to answer to anybody but yourself…not your parents or your spouse or your business associates. What did you do with this gift of living? It will be an important question to you then. Why not make it an important question now?
Every kid needs to make some money , right ? You want a job. You can’t get a job. You need experience. You got no experience. High School and College kid problems.
But fear not. Not every job has to be a career. Money plays. You don’t need brilliant ideas. Sometimes you just need to make some money for the summer. Or to pay for your braces. Or to pay for the phonebill your parents killed you on. Whatever you need cash for , its always a problem that needs solving.
To solve your big money problems, sometimes you only need to solve simple problems. Sometimes you just need to be creative. I’m going to give you 2 ideas any student going to any school can do to make more than minimum wage.
Say what ? Shoelaces. I said it.
I guarantee you that if you go to the parking lot of any high school or college football game with a bunch of shoelaces in team colors that you bought for 2 bucks a pop,and put up a sign and 2 chairs, you can make money. Not football season? . Go to where ever there are people in your community. Flea Market. Basketball Game. Dance recital. Wherever people who go to your school show up , you show up. You set up your sign and your chairs.
On the sign you put something like ” Get in the YourSchool spirit”. I will re lace your shoes with “YOURSCHOOL” color laces for $10 (small schools), $20 bucks (big schools with more drunk alums or lots of rich people). If you want to make it even more fun. You can add “I will lace them in 5 minutes or they are free”. If you are really enterprising, you can put up on the poster about 5 different ways to lace the shoes and charge a premium for anything but “Missionary” lacing.
Easy money. Guaranteed.
2. Become an expert in programming All in 1 tv remote controls. People are buying a single remote control to replace all the remotes they have. No one really wants to take the time to figure out all the options. No one wants to take the time to learn how to program the stupid remote. In fact it pisses them off that it takes far more time than they have to do something they bought the stupid remote to do.
To help solve everyone’s problem, go to a local electronics store and find out what remotes they sell. Go to the local Walmart, Target, Best Buy, etc, etc. if the grocery store sells remotes go there too. Find out what the most popular sellers are . How do you find out which are the most popular ? You ask someone.
Then , you become an expert in programming those remote controls. The worlds best expert. Once you know your shit. Go back to the store with business cards with your email/cell phone number on it and the following
I will program any Remote Control for $20
I Have a Phd In Remote Control Programming
Then you go to all the stores and tell them that their customers will be far happier if they send them to you to program the remote. You will program it exactly like they want it, connecting to any and all devices. All the store has to do is let you put up a stack of cards next to the remote control maybe a little sign. Then you give a sheepish grin to the manager of the electronics or remote control section of the store and tell them how this is really important to you and how you will do a great job. you promise. Then every couple days you go back to the store and talk to the salespeople who work there and remind them about your PHD in Remote Control Programming and how if they send you enough business, you might be able to spiff them a commission.
Then you damn well do a great job or some other kid is going to steal your remote control programming business
There you go. Easy breezy money. nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. Just some hard work , some customer service and the ability to be nice to people and thank them when they pay you and tip you.
This Blog Post was Written by Mark Cuban Visit his Site.