When you have a problem I’m sure you want to find the best solution. Sometimes you even get into overthinking and arrive in a point where you feel blocked or even despairing. Already angry, you “quit on it” and you’re switching to a more relaxing activity instead.
Suddenly, the right solution appears in your mind!
Why is this happening and how to gain control over it? Read further to find out!
For the problem-solving abilities, only a few people emphasize on a blessing we all have for free (and don’t know how to use): MIND-WANDERING.
What is mind-wandering and how to use it
What it is mind-wandering?
Reading a book and waking up in the middle of a phrase, realizing you don’t know what you just read in the last 3 pages… Well, that’s the most given example of mind-wandering. ^_^
If you prefer a definition, here’s the best:
a condition in which thoughts do not remain focused on the task at hand but range widely and spontaneously across other topics. It tends to occur during tasks that do not require sustained attention. Mind wandering cannot be scientifically quantified but has been studied using thought sampling and questionnaires. Research questions include how much mind wandering is a stable personality trait, how much it is linked to mood and situation, and how it relates to processing capacity and working memory. The contents of mind wandering are often referred to as task-unrelated thoughts (TUTs), task-unrelated images and thoughts (TUITs), or stimulus-independent and task-unrelated thoughts (SITUTs). See also absent-mindedness; intrusive thoughts.
Mind-wandering is disturbing for working memory, reading, driving, the performance at the intelligence tests, sustained attention, and so on…
When you see the problem presented like this, it seems just a negative function.
But… is it possible that evolution kept for us such a negative trait without a good reason? Of course not!
But firstly, let’s understand…
Why does the mind go wandering?
In 2013, Mooneyham and Schooler were telling us that it occurs mostly when we are in a not-so-happy mood (and is making us even less happy).
“the expected value of whatever the agent is doing […] is deemed too low, and this “too low” judgment generates a search for a better goal, or task”.
Then what are its benefits?
The blessing of mind-wandering
It offers you relief from boredom!!
Do you remember your most boring college hours or a boring meeting in the workplace? Say thanks to mind-wandering for not taking your things and leave the room right at that moment!
I’m kidding. This is not the most important benefit, but for sure is a useful one…
When it comes to boredom, mind-wandering helps you “speed up” the perceived flow of time, so you can stay in your place during a necessary (and quite boring) task.
More seriously now, the most important benefit is that it helps your creative thinking. And more importantly, your creative problem-solving!
There’s a trick to making mind-wandering work for you and not against you.
Engage deeply and fully in a difficult task and only then proceed to do an undemanding task. While doing the undemanding task, let your thoughts float freely.
Baird et al. ran a study in 2012 where they tested 4 types of activities after engaging in a difficult task. They wanted to discover which activity brings the right solution faster. The activities tested were resting, engaging in another demanding task, taking a break, and engaging in an undemanding task.
The last one had by far the best results. Engaging first in a difficult task and then in an undemanding task is also called “the incubation period”.
There are two steps of the incubation period’s mechanism:1. The unconscious associative processing is increased by2. Default and executive systems mutually contributing to associative processing (this has been proven through neuroimaging)
Other important benefits of mind-wandering are:• Autobiographical planning (mind-wandering helps at anticipation and planning of personally relevant future goals)• Switching easily through information (“attentional cycling”)• Dishabituation while learning (through reduction of the semantic satiation effect)
(Mooneyham and Schooler)
How to use it to your advantage?
So far we discovered what is mind-wandering, what are its risks, and what’s so great about it.
But how to take advantage only of its benefits and lower its risks?
Researches show that to control the negative effects of mind-wandering, mindfulness is the answer!
Practicing mindfulness raises the awareness and the non-judgmental observation of your thoughts, emotions, and external factors.
By doing it you gain more control over your focused attention. And you get to choose the moments of mind-wandering.
Mind-wanderings benefits depend on the moments and circumstances of its appearance.
It is helping you at solving problems, but it’s important to “practice” it after you first engage in a demanding task and then in an undemanding task.
Engaging in an undemanding task is more efficient than resting, taking a break, or engaging in another demanding task.
During a task that demands your focused attention, mind-wandering is highly disturbing.
It’s not useful to do a demanding task right after another demanding task, especially if you didn’t find the solution to the first task yet.
And, to control your focus moments versus the moments of making new connections through mind-wandering, mindfulness is the answer.
What’s your experience with mind-wandering for solving your problems? Have you ever considered it to be a blessing or just a curse? I kindly invite you to leave a comment below about this and if you have any additional information, please share them with us!
APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2014). Apa.Org.https://dictionary.apa.org/
Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W. Y., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by Distraction. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1117–1122. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612446024
Mooneyham, B. W., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). The costs and benefits of mind-wandering: A review. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne de Psychologie Expérimentale, 67(1), 11–18. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031569
Shepherd, J. (2019). Why does the mind wander? Neuroscience of Consciousness, 2019(1).https://doi.org/10.1093/nc/niz014