9/27/16: Mind, Mindfulness,
and Mind Wandering


Your mind is always occupied with something. 

It might be focused on a task that requires all your concentration. Or maybe it’s distracted and flitting from one thing to another. Or it could be recalling something that happened yesterday—or 10 years ago. Or having an imaginary argument with a friend or co-worker or family member. Or fantasizing about an upcoming vacation.

Sometimes you can direct your mind to focus on what you want it to focus on. Other times, however, it just seems to wander along a winding path on a trajectory of its own.

An often-cited study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert (author of Stumbling on Happiness) reports that the percentage of time someone’s mind wanders is a good indicator of his or her level of happiness. The conclusion: a wandering mind is not a happy mind. And, indeed, your wandering mind may be ruminating or obsessing or otherwise causing you mild to severe distress. So instead of allowing your mind to wander, you are encouraged to make every attempt to be here now.

Which is where mindfulness—especially mindfulness meditation—comes into the picture. The aim of mindfulness is to stay present by keeping your attention focused on what you are doing or what is actually happening right now. One of the main underpinnings of mindfulness is its agreement with the conclusion of Killingsworth and Gilbert that mind wandering is not good. And regular practitioners of mindfulness meditation do report decreased levels of stress and an increased sense of wellbeing.

On the surface, then, it seems quite simple and straightforward. Mind wandering is the problem; mindfulness is the solution. But the reality turns out to be far more complex and much more interesting than that. There’s a cognitive bias at play here, black or white thinking, represented in this case by the belief that one mental state is better than another.

Your mind is always occupied with something because it’s wired that way. 

You can’t shut it off because you have a network of brain structures, referred to as the Default Mode Network (DMN), that is active whenever you are not focused on an external task—and even sometimes when you are. The default mode consists primarily of what are categorized as “self-generated thoughts” (as opposed to thoughts generated in response to perception), including:

  • Task-unrelated thoughts
  • Spontaneous cognition
  • Mind-wandering
  • Free association
  • Self-focused attention
  • Introspectively oriented thought
  • Recollecting the past or imagining the future
  • Scene construction
  • Social cognition
  • Narrative comprehension
  • Forming associations
  • Semantic memory

Mindfulness suppresses the activity of the DMN, while mind wandering is one of its functions. The DMN allows you to think about one thing while you’re doing something else. This isn’t a trivial matter. As Viktor Frankl wrote (of his concentration camp experience) in Man’s Search for Meaning:

Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life…were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.

Join us for the next MONTHLY MEETING OF THE MIND (& BRAIN), where we’ll explore what mind wandering, mindfulness, creativity, your mental model, Keith Richards’ penning of “Satisfaction,” art appreciation, flow states, your sense of self, and Albert Einstein’s discovery of the theory of relativity all have in common.

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