A child stares out the window of a classroom with a vacant expression on their face.
On a beautiful sunny day, a man walks down a street with fast pace, tense jaw, eyes cast downward.
While chatting with a friend, your mind drifts to what you’d like to have for lunch, suddenly they look back at you expectantly. You’re embarrassed to realise that you completely zoned out and haven’t listen to a word they said!
Each of these scenarios demonstrate the very human experience of ‘mind wandering’. You’re here, but also somewhere else. Neuroscientists have found that when people are told to rest and let their mind drift, their thinking remained quite active.
So Where Do Our Minds Go When They Wander?
The neuroscientist, Moshe Bar’s recent study found three main processes that take place when our minds wander:
- Representations of the self (how one or others perceive themselves)
- Theory of mind (intentions or experiences of others)
- Associative thinking (scenarios, planning, going over memories to prepare for the future, expectations or predictions, imagination)
Mind wandering is not a conscious process. However, Bar suggests that we can maximise how helpful these processes are with awareness of the type of thinking we’re experiencing.
Narrow and Broad Thinking
On a good day, we might let our mind wander ‘broadly’. These are cases where our mind makes broad associations between ideas. These thoughts are generally creative, helpful and elicit positive feelings. For example: I’m lazing in a park, I see a tree with an interesting bark texture, I appreciate its beauty and consider how this texture could be carved into pottery, how it might look on a vase, with light hitting it at different angles.
However, on a less fortunate day we might fall into ‘narrow thinking’ or rumination, where thoughts are stuck, regretful, negative or hopeless. In cases where the mind is focused on the past, it may look like: I walk into the office at 9:10am with persistent thinking about the morning’s disruptions to public transport. I think about each step that went wrong, the lack of communication and how I’m running late through no fault of my own! This kind of thinking is in some ways perpetuated by our society’s expectation of busy-ness and productivity, so can be especially hard to resist for your brain.
Another unhelpful ruminative pattern of thinking that can almost ‘hijack’ our mind’s wandering capacity is catastrophising and worry – where our mind wanders from one possible bad outcome to an even worse one. Even very high functioning people can struggle with limiting their mind’s wandering in unhelpful, increasingly worrying directions.
Bar describes the memory as being like a giant net – we can connect anything through associations. However, if we make narrow associations, we are more likely to feel down or distressed. If we make broad associations, we may connect with a healthy, creative kind of mind wandering.
Can I Influence My Wandering Mind to Make it More Helpful?
In short, yes! We can help influence our wandering minds by first recognising the quality of our thinking at any given moment. So, by taking a moment to recognise whether thinking is narrow or broad, helpful or unhelpful, you can decide whether it is likely to be a good time to zone out and let it wander, or to engage in a task that will help keep your mind reined in.
On days when emotions are running high and thinking is narrow, it may be an achievement simply to ground oneself with mindfulness or to use tools to self-soothe. However, if the mind feels relatively settled and you’re about to engage in a task or a period of rest, it may be a good time to let it drift. For more information on mindfulness or to experience free meditations, you may enjoy the Headspace webpage or app.
I begin my daily run and notice a sense of exhaustion and subtle cramp in my side. But then, I start to notice the feeling of lightness when both feet are in the air between each step. I imagine the moment of drifting through the air extending longer and longer until I feel I am slightly flying. I picture the people and dogs in the park losing gravitational pull and rising like helium balloons. And eventually… I realise with glee that I ran much further than expected!
There is something beautiful about what happens when we’re in a relaxed, dreamy state and we let our minds drift. Of course, it isn’t something we’ll be able to tap into in all conditions or in an instant. But it’s worth noting the value of mind space; the playful, imaginative and creative home we can all access inside our heads.
For more information about mind wandering, how it can improve your mood and boost creativity, see Moshe Bar’s book, Mindwandering. Moshe Bar also discussed the topic of mind wandering in an episode of All in the Mind podcast.