by Elizabeth Picciuto
If you can’t get through this article without checking your Facebook, walking to the fridge, scrolling through your phone, and choosing something on Netflix, don’t worry.
I am one of those people who will be unlikely to finish writing this paragraph without checking my Twitter account, staring out the window blankly, changing my mind about what to have for dinner, and mentally rewriting what I will say three paragraphs from now. Once I ordered a book called Mindfulness to try to conquer my eruptive mind. I eagerly tore open the cardboard package, only to realize that I had bought the book several months before and forgotten about it.
According to many studies, mind-wandering saps our attention and makes us worse at performing a given task. Unsurprisingly, science supports the intuitive notion that it’s a bad idea to fantasize about snuggling with a warm, squirmy dachshund while operating heavy machinery. Much more tenuous data show that mind-wandering makes us unhappy, although that may have something more with what our mind wanders to—and our frustration with our poor performance at the task at hand.
For my fellow daydreamers, however, who only experience “flow” when floating down a river, there is some consolation. Other studies show that when our minds wander, we may be doing our planning and perhaps having creative moments.
In a new study, researchers at the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel were actually able, for the first time in a laboratory setting, to cause subjects’ minds to wander. When they applied transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the frontal lobes of subjects’ brains, the tendency to mind-wander increased (my mind reels, jumps, and shimmies at the thought of increased mind-wandering).
“Just think about it, mind wandering is something very personal and individual. A person himself or herself does not know when and how she starts to mind wander,” Vadim Axelrod, lead researcher of the study, wrote in an email. “Here, by using electrical current, we temporarily changed something in the brain circuitry in such a way that a person decided to mind-wander more. And all this happened unconsciously because subjects did not feel that they were stimulated.”
“We also showed that performance on external task also increased. The result was not significant, but the trend was clear in all experiments,” Axelrod continued, noting how his study differed from most other studies that show that mind-wandering detracts from task performance. The best explanation for the difference in his study, he suggested, was that we use the same cognitive systems for attention to external activities, such as driving or cooking a meal, that we do for mind-wandering…