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The science behind your wandering mind and what to do about it

Get the full scoop on the good, the bad and the not-so-ugly of zoning out.

Despite what your parents or teachers may have told you as a child, daydreaming, aka, when your mind wanders off task and into the wilderness of unrelated thoughts, good, bad and in-between, is not always a bad thing.

While until fairly recently neuroscientists thought that the electrical activity of the mind at rest was just neural background noise, it actually looks like all of that mental meandering likely serves a purpose.

In ancient times, being able to remember what happened in the past, and predict what might happen in the future probably helped our ancestors avoid catastrophe. And today this ability may be a major source of support and inspiration when it comes to creative problem solving and planning.

Is mind-wandering a default?

We all zone out far more than we’re probably willing to admit. In fact, according to a 2010 study, our minds wander around half (47%) the time we’re awake. And mind-wandering involves a system in our brains called the default mode network.

When your brain is at rest, but not asleep, i.e. not focused on anything in particular, your default mode network is at its most active.

This network consists of some important structures in the brain and although it’s known to be involved in things like thinking, it's deactivated when focussed on a specific task.

The default mode network is also active when you are thinking about yourself, about others, remembering the past or planning for the future, aka, letting your thoughts roam wild and free.

The Good

While some past studies have associated a wandering mind with a general decrease in mental wellbeing, more recent studies have demonstrated that daydreaming can improve performance on repetitive tasks, increase creativity, divergent thinking, and novel ideas and could even make some people feel happier as they indulge in pleasant, off-task musings to distract themselves.

Which means that letting your thoughts drift might actually help you reach a breakthrough or come to a new conclusion that changes your current project for the better. In fact, a study of writers and physicists indicated that while they came up with creative ideas on task too, the ideas they had while their minds were somewhere else (aka, not on the task at hand) were more likely to be associated with overcoming an impasse or having an "aha" moment.

This is why taking a break when you’re feeling blocked and doing something else (like going for a walk or recording your thoughts in Foundations) can free the block and help you refocus.

The Bad

Of course, your brain’s roaming isn’t always a good thing. When it leads to worry, overthinking, or worse still, rumination—things can quickly take a turn for the worse and ruin your mood (and your day).

A stressed woman (who's maybe ruminating) covers her eyes with her hands, as she sits in a chair upholstered with chevron fabric.

Ivan Aleksic via @unsplash

Ruminating, a negative sort of mind-wandering where your mind keeps running off to the same negative place, again and again, can become intrusive and hard to reign in, especially when what we’re worrying about is something outside our control.

Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to replace your unhelpful thoughts and help you redirect your attention.

The not-so-ugly

And, as it turns out, daydreaming is a default behaviour, and our brains automatically do it whenever we’re not actively directing our attention elsewhere. But whether or not that default has a positive or negative influence on our wellbeing depends on where the mind tends to go.

Our brains are attracted to unresolved issues and can lean towards hope or worry, depending on the situation at hand, the person in question and their biological disposition and life experiences. Fortunately, we have a substantial amount of influence on how (and where) our minds wander. Read on for a few things you can do to help your mind wander in a more positive direction.

3 things you can do (when your mind wanders)

1. Get mindful and meditate

Mindfulness and meditation help us change how we relate to the present moment, and over time, the world and people around us. Compassionate meditation in particular (like the Loving-kindness meditation in Foundations), can make for more positive mind-wandering. This sort of meditation can help people feel more caring towards themselves and others—both of which are tied to happiness.

Doing mindfulness meditations can also make it easier to redirect your thoughts in moments you need to concentrate, as part of the practice consists of noticing when your attention gets off track and gently directing it back to the present moment with a breath or a mantra. For more on mindfulness, read our post on evidence-based reasons to practise mindfulness.

2. Record your thoughts

Tame your unruly mind with this simple technique from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Make a regular habit of getting your thoughts down (on paper, or in your Foundations Thought record) and give your brain a break. It’s an excellent hack that can help shift your default.

Looking to learn more about this technique? Foundations' Challenge your thoughts program walks you through the basics.

3. Let your mind do what it wants

Instead of trying to force your brain to focus, give yourself a break. If your mind is wandering a lot, give yourself permission to take a few minutes off to see where it wants to go. Take five and let your thoughts go wherever they will.

And if mind-wandering is a recurring problem for you, try scheduling a regular time of day to give your thoughts free rein. Research shows that letting your focus move away from the task at hand helps relieve any boredom associated with concentrating for longer stretches and helps people return to what they’re doing with new ideas, feeling refreshed.

Do you get distracted while working and find your mind wandering? Let us know at foundations@koahealth.com.