Daydream Believers: Scientists Ask Why Our Minds Wander

Scientists find we do it half the time, and it's healthy.

March 22, 2012, 5:45 PM

March 23, 2012 — -- Zoning out while trying to read this? No offense taken, since all of us do it at least a third of the time that we're awake.

In recent years a number of academicians have ventured into this previously unexplored territory, trying to figure out why our minds wander while we're supposed to be paying attention. They were probably spurred on by the blank faces of their students during their stimulating lectures.

But despite considerable interest in determining precisely why we zone out so often, scientists say it is still a bit unclear why we do it. There's some good news, however. The evidence suggests it doesn't appear to be all that harmful, except for a couple of studies showing it hinders comprehension and may make you unhappy.

The latest study comes from the University of Wisconsin, where psychologists Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson say they have uncovered the mental processes that take place while our minds wander. Their study, published in the current issue of Psychological Science, indicates our working memory -- the part of our memory system that guides us through our daily chores, from remembering where you left the car keys to telling the difference between a red light and a green light -- lets us simultaneously juggle multiple thoughts.

The researchers measured the strength of working memory among participants in their study and found that a more robust working memory leads to more wandering of the mind, especially if the task at hand is boring. But here's an interesting result: If concentration was challenged by numerous distractions, participants were more likely to pay attention regardless of the strength of their working memory.

Jonathan Smallwood of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, who also participated in the Wisconsin study, said the research shows that while working memory allows us to zone in and out, it also allocates brain resources to the most pressing problems, overcoming distractions when necessary.

Another study, from the University of British Columbia, found that while mind wandering is usually associated with "laziness or inattentiveness," the human brain is actually much more active while daydreaming than when focused on routine tasks. Psychologists used brain scans to study participants as they performed boring assignments and found that their brains did indeed wander -- but it was during that period that the brain's "executive network" was the most active.

The "executive network," incidentally, is what we turn to when confronted with a high-level, complex problem. So daydreaming, according to this study, isn't necessarily a bad thing, and could even help us solve some of our most pressing problems.

Two separate studies a couple of years ago found that it may be difficult to conceal the fact that you are zoning out. Both studies revealed that our own eyes give us away.

One study at the University of Waterloo found that the eyes blink when the mind wanders. Researchers noted that when we zone out, we try to eliminate whatever else is going on around us, so the brain must do something to reduce external information, like ordering the eyes to close.

Participants in that study read text on a computer screen while a sensor recorded their eye movements. From time to time the participants were interrupted and asked if their mind had just been wandering, or if they were concentrating on the text. Sure enough, the eyes blinked more while the mind wandered than while it focused on the task.

In another eye study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh studied eye movements as participants read sections from a book. The psychologists initially had their subjects read the dense, often disturbing prose of Franz Kafka, but that required so much concentration that there was little evidence of wandering minds. So they switched to Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility."

The participants pushed a button when they felt themselves zoning out. During that time the eyes tended to fixate on words, as if they were just "mechanically plodding along," the researchers reported. But when they were concentrating on the text, the eyes zipped from word to word, showing that the participants were reading normally.

Incidentally, another Pittsburgh study found that readers really zone out if they are craving a cigarette.

And a third study from Pittsburgh found that even a moderate dose of alcohol increases mind wandering. But the drinker is unaware of it.

Finally, a Harvard University study concluded that "the mind is a frequent, but not happy, wanderer."

Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert collected 250,000 data points from an iPhone app on participant's thoughts as they went through their daily lives. The 2,250 participants were doing such things as walking, eating, shopping and watching television, and they reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of the time.

"This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non present," the study concludes. The researchers said the mind ignoring the present is a sign of unhappiness; thus a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

However, there was one activity that the participants in the Harvard study said left them happy and sharply focused.

It was, they said, "making love."