We’ve all been there. You’re slouched in a meeting or a classroom, supposedly paying attention, but your mind has long since wandered off, churning out lists of all the things you need to do—or that you could be doing if only you weren’t stuck here…
Suddenly you realize everyone is looking your way expectantly, waiting for an answer. But you’re staring blankly, grasping at straws to make a semi-coherent response. The curse of the wandering mind!
But don’t worry—you’re not alone. In fact, a recent study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert sampled over 2,000 adults during their day-to-day activities and found that 47 percent of the time, their minds were not focused on what they were currently doing. Even more striking, when people’s minds were wandering, they reported being less happy.
This suggests it might be good to find ways to reduce these mental distractions and improve our ability to focus. Ironically, mind-wandering itself can help strengthen our ability to focus, if leveraged properly. This can be achieved using an age-old skill: meditation. Indeed, a new wave of research reveals what happens in our brains when our minds wander—and sheds light on the host of cognitive and emotional benefits that come with increased focus.
What happens in the wandering mind?
For something that happens so often, what do we really know about this process of mind-wandering?
For thousands of years, contemplative practices such as meditation have provided a means to look inward and investigate our mental processes. It may seem surprising, but mind-wandering is actually a central element of focused attention (FA) meditation. In this foundational style of meditation, the practitioner is instructed to keep her attention on a single object, often the physical sensations of breathing.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s much easier said than done. Try it for a few minutes and see what happens.
If you’re like most people, before long your attention will wander away into rumination, fantasy, analyzing, planning. At some point, you might realize that your mind is no longer focused on the breath. With this awareness, you proceed to disengage from the thought that had drawn your mind away, and steer your attention back to your breath. A few moments later, the cycle will likely repeat.
At first it might seem like the tendency toward mind-wandering would be a problem for the practice of FA meditation, continually derailing your attention from the “goal” of keeping your mind on the breath.
However, the practice is really meant to highlight this natural trajectory of the mind, and in doing so, it trains your attention systems to become more aware of the mental landscape at any given moment, and more adept at navigating it. With repeated practice, it doesn’t take so long to notice that you’ve slipped into some kind of rumination or daydream. It also becomes easier to drop your current train of thought and return your focus to the breath. Those who practice say that thoughts start to seem less “sticky”—they don’t have such a hold on you.
As a neuroscientist and meditator, I’d long been fascinated with what might be happening in my brain when I meditate. Being familiar with both subjective, first-person meditative practice and objective, third-person scientific research, I wondered what would happen if I put these two modes of investigation together. Could I get a more fine-grained picture of how this process works in the brain by leveraging the experience of these cognitive shifts during meditation?
I started by considering the default mode network, a set of brain areas that tend to increase in activity when we’re not actively engaged in anything else—in other words, when our minds tend to wander. Maybe it was this default mode network that kept barging in during my meditation, interfering with my ability to keep my attention focused. And maybe this network was what I was learning to “tune down” by practicing over and over. I wondered if I could test this scientifically…