The Value of a Wandering Mind
Clive Thompson always has interesting things to say. His latest piece in Wired is thought provoking. Perhaps it’s a good thing for our minds to wander.
Our modern info-culture lionizes those who possess laserlike focus, particularly at work. Drifting off into a reverie is considered the enemy of productivity, which is partly why some companies control employee access to the Internet…
But what if we’re wrong about daydreaming? What if it’s crucial to solving problems in our personal lives and at work?
Brain scientists are beginning to suspect that it is. And if they’re right, we might need to rethink the way we work — perhaps even develop tools that actually encourage mental drift.
For years, brain scientists viewed a wandering mind as merely a lapse in cognition. But recent studies have found that we lose concentration shockingly often. A 2007 study by Michael Kane of the University of North Carolina found that our minds drift away from our tasks fully one-third of the time. And this suggests that daydreaming can actually be useful — because if it were such a bad thing, it’s unlikely that we’d do it so often.
Why do our minds wander? Brain-scanning technology has uncovered some clues. It turns out that when your mind drifts, your temporal lobes — which are associated with processing long-term memories — become busier. So when you float off into a reverie, you’re actually doing important data-storage work.
Daydreaming isn’t just the mind’s way of processing information, though. Other scans have found that the wandering mind also utilizes the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that’s involved in problem-solving. The upshot, says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara who is studying this area, is that your idling mind is likely doing deeply creative work, tackling your hairiest long-term tasks — projects you’ve been trying to address for months, the arc of your career, the state of your marriage. “Mind-wandering is actually a very involved task,” Schooler says. “You leave the here and now and focus on more remote concerns that nevertheless might be more important. We’ve been focusing on the downside of this, but we need to think about the upside.”