Mindfulness v. Mind Wandering

I recently received an email from a student asking about mind-wandering and mindfulness. He pointed out that he is quite attached to mind wandering and whether mindfulness is better than mind wandering.

“Something that is puzzling me; why do we have a default (“wandering”) mind if that task-positive mind is better and happier to be in? Does it help in some situations, does it encourage imagination, open-mindedness, a wider solution space? I think historically I’ve been quite attached to that default mode, I’m feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance in letting go.”

I can put your mind at rest.

Excellent question. There is no need to let go of mind wandering. It would be impossible to in any case as it is, like task positive mode, an essential activity for the brain. Remember that by fostering mindfulness, we are only ever exercising the ‘choice’ of whether we allow our minds to wander or return our attention to the sensory present moment. We are not, and can not, ever banish mind wandering from our experience entirely. We can also, always choose to let the mind wander if we wish. Mind-wandering is a subset of default mode. Default mode has a purpose. It helps in decision making and in retrieving social information and in a number of other ways. Mind wandering only becomes a problem when it entirely squeezes mindfulness out of our experience or operates compulsively or at inappropriate times (see below).
If I am a judge, mind-wandering is part of my decision making process, I will imagine how I will feel giving various sentences for example: letting the accused off, giving them a light sentence or giving them a heavy sentence. The result is gut feel. It is incredibly useful and can often outperform cognitive assessment. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink gives us an insight into that process. That useful intuition often arises in mind wandering.

Mind wandering is also a place for creativity and it can be a welcome experience. Positive mind-wandering is as enjoyable as actually doing something according to Gilbert and Killingworth, the Harvard guys who wrote the article ‘A wandering mind is an unhappy mind’ in the journal science after studying mind wandering through an app used by thousands of subjects.

What we are seeking to do with these mental processes is to become comfortable with them, understand them and regulate them for our benefit.
What our artificial lives have done is to overload what would be quiet moments of connection with often compulsive mind wandering and problem solving, when it is more beneficial to have a rest from it.

Examples of when mindfulness trumps default mode:

  • When someone else is speaking.
  • When we are trying to get to sleep and the mind is in overdrive.
  • When we are having a special experience, travelling, spending time with our family etc.
  • When we are eating.
  • When we are landing an airplane or doing our tax return.
  • When we are doing sport or exercising (think of a mind-wandering goalkeeper or the runner that doesn’t notice the rabbit hole).
  • Walking the dog or going for a stroll is most usefully a combination of mindfulness and mind-wandering which is exactly what will happen in any case for most of us.
  • When we are suffering from cognitive overload: Waking up with a head full of lists, suffering from anxiety or worrying about outcomes too much. Mindfulness is a refractory period for the mind.
  • When we are driving or crossing the road.
  • When the needle gets stuck and our thoughts become unhelpful, repetitive or affect our ability to sleep.

Examples of appropriate experiences for mind wandering:

  • Retrieving memories especially, social ones.
  • Social evaluations of the self and others.
  • As ‘part of’ the decision making process. A balanced decision making process consist of: rational choices (task-positive mode). Gut-feel – default mode and task positive mode collaborating. Loosely associated thoughts (creativity) are default mode or mind wandering. From this we are making use of three elements of decision making in a skilled way: How we feel, what our subconscious mind contributes and the outcome of our rational decision making processes.
  • Mind wandering is great when we require creative input. Drifting in and out of sleep (the hypnagogic state) is also immensely beneficial which sometimes results in us waking up with the answer in our heads which happens an awful lot to me now. Check this link out if you are interested in this: http://scienceline.org/2014/06/sleeping-on-and-dreaming-up-a-solution/
  • And most importantly, when we are just chilling and our monkey mind isn’t giving us any trouble.

I hope this helps, feel free to ask any questions that arise.