Nolan Reardon and Karina Agadzhanyan
Have you ever caught yourself repeatedly re-reading book pages, only to find the words slipping through your grasp, drifting off during a lecture, leaving the message behind, or arriving at your destination with no recollection of the journey? These experiences encompass the phenomenon of mind-wandering (MW), a form of attentional diversion where one’s attention shifts away from tasks at hand and focuses on task-unrelated thoughts (Seli et al., 2018; Robinson et al. 2020). As a result, MW can function as a form of divided attention which can occur either intentionally or spontaneously. However, it is predominantly associated with spontaneity and tends to have more pronounced negative consequences (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006; Seli et al., 2019). In this sense, MW can be viewed as quite an invasive form of attentional diversion as it operates largely without one’s consent. This sets MW apart from another form of attentional diversions, like boredom, which is viewed as the aversive emotional state resulting from the failure to be engaged in a satisfying activity (Eastwood et al., 2012).
Understanding MW is crucial as research suggests that it may occupy 50% of our waking hours, serving as the brain’s default state (Buckner et al., 2008). Since its impact extends to various aspects of our lives, affecting academic performance and mental health outcomes (Robinson et. al, 2020), it is important to investigate and address the pervasive phenomenon of mind-wandering while emphasizing the significance of mindfulness practices as a potential remedy.
Mind-Wandering and Psychopathology
It is important to investigate the manifestations of mind-wandering in various mental conditions – including depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – with the objective of discerning potential therapeutic interventions aimed at mitigating its detrimental impact. Early studies revealed a link between mind-wandering and depression. A study by Deng and colleagues (2012) used the Becks Depression Inventory (BDI) to measure intensity, severity and depth of depression and a Sustained Attention Response Task (SART) to assess mind wandering behavior during a task and found that individuals with higher depression scores often
made more frequent errors on the attention task. Furthermore, a study by Hoffman and colleagues (2016) delved into Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and its connection to MW and revealed that individuals with MDD tend to engage in more MW during tasks compared to healthy controls. What’s truly fascinating is the distinction in the nature of MW between the two groups: those with MDD tended to dwell more on negative thoughts, less on positive ones, and fixated more on past events. In contrast, the control group’s off-task thoughts were filled with future possibilities and positive prospects, which points to an interesting link between mental well-being and MW (Hoffmann et al., 2016).
In the realm of mental health, anxiety and depression often walk hand in hand, and it is no surprise that MW is a common companion to both. A recent study by Figueiredo and colleagues (2022) looked at the relation between and MW. With the use of State-Trait Anxiety Scales (STAI) to measure both situational and general anxiety levels, as well as the Mind Excessively Wandering Scale (MEWS) to measure self-reported MW, the study observed a positive correlation between anxiety scores and mind-wandering.
MW is also involved in a particularly complex relationship with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Bozhilova et al., 2018). ADHD is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that disrupts an individual’s ability to function or develop effectively. Individuals with ADHD often experience difficulties in cognitive performance and mental health (e.g., anxiety and depression), as well as setbacks in education and occupation. A study by Bozhilova and colleagues (2018) suggests that MW could be a defining aspect of ADHD, indicating that deficiencies in normal neural regulation of MW in ADHD individuals make them more susceptible to MW’s negative effects. However, it is important to note that independently of the presence of ADHD diagnosis, higher levels of MW were linked to anxiety rather than ADHD itself (Figueiredo et al., 2020), suggesting that anxiety was a mediator of mind-wandering.
Potential Mechanisms of Wind Wandering
Several theories exist that provide explanations for the mechanisms of MW. The Load Theory of MW suggests that MW is more likely to happen when attention is not adequately engaged in a specific task (Forster & Lavie, 2009). A related study found that individuals experienced fewer instances of mind-wandering when they needed to process a substantial amount of perceptual information from their surroundings (Geden et al., 2018). It is as if when attention is sufficiently occupied with external stimuli, there are limited attentional resources left for MW. In other words, MW could be the brain’s way of self-stimulation when external stimuli are lacking. Conversely, when tasks are excessively challenging, MW is also probable, such that when a task is too difficult, full engagement becomes challenging. However, since the brain seeks some form of focus, it turns inward often in the form of ruminations. In summary, this theory shed light on why and when MW tends to occur, revealing the delicate interplay between external and internal stimuli and the engagement of our attention.
The neural correlates of MW have been strongly linked to the Default Mode Network (DMN), a network of neurons known to be engaged during passive brain states. Using fMRI imaging, researchers found that DMN exhibits heightened activity during passive control tasks, although some activity remains even during directed tasks such as deliberate memory recall (Buckner et al., 2008). In other words, these neuronal circuits showed more activity during periods when individuals are not focusing on any specific tasks. Some of the functions associated with DMN activity are, aiding in the construction of mental models of personally relevant information, processing internal cognitions, self-referential processing, and imagining alternative situations as well as future situations (Sood & Jones, 2013). It is hypothesized that this type of activity and processes underlie the mechanisms of MW. As a result, it is believed that excessive DMN activity leads to MW and various psychopathological conditions, such as depression, anxiety and ADHD.
Mindfulness Meditation (MM)
Mindfulness has gained widespread recognition among health professionals, well-being experts, and psychologists due to its positive impact on mental health. This practice has been shown to effectively reduce MW and enhance overall mental well-being. Rooted in Eastern philosophy, particularly Indian and Buddhist traditions, mindfulness involves cultivating non-judgmental awareness and focus on both external events and one’s internal mental world (Kabat-Zinn, 2021). Researchers suggest that MM may aid individuals experiencing MW, as these two processes are essentially contrasting. The underlying logic is that since MW involves a lack of awareness regarding one’s thoughts and attention, while MM entails becoming aware of one’s thoughts and focusing, it stands to reason that MM could serve as an effective tool for mitigating the adverse consequences of MW (Xu et al., 2017). In addition, research shows that the DMN– which is linked to MW and psychopathology–responds positively to MM training and practice such that connectivity in the DMN appears to be more balanced after sessions of MM (Sood and Jones, 2013). Using fMRI technology, researchers measured participants’ brain activity while engaging in mindfulness meditation and found reduced recruitment of DMN activity as well as strengthened connectivity between areas responsible for cognitive control, conflict monitoring, and working memory (Sood & Jones, 2013).
In contrast to MW, which has been linked to various adverse consequences, mindfulness is consistently associated with a sense of well-being (Belardi et al., 2022). Mindfulness has been shown to play a crucial role in mitigating depressive rumination, promoting positive emotions, and improving depression (Teasdale et al., 2000; Deng, 2012; Hoffman 2010). A study by Xu and colleagues (2017) looked at the impact of MM training on MW in anxious individuals. They had participants in a meditation group follow an audio recording titled “Mindfulness of body and breath” (Williams & Penman, 2011) while a control group sat quietly listening to an audiobook of The Hobbit. The audio intervention guided participants to concentrate on their breath and maintain an open and receptive attitude toward their inner experiences. This mindfulness exercise was created specifically for beginners and has been a widely utilized practice in research studies exploring mindfulness. All participants completed a sustained-attention task before and after the intervention. Results revealed that after the intervention, people who listened to the mindfulness recording reported less MW during the sustained-attention task compared to controls.
There are various mindfulness interventions, but not everyone has access to formal mindfulness training programs. The good news is that MM can be practiced pretty much anywhere and anytime. Here are a few examples of mindfulness practices you can do on your own. These forms of meditation provide a valuable opportunity to establish a deeper connection with your physical self and mental self.
Body Scan: To begin, find a comfortable posture and gently close your eyes. Inhale deeply, allowing yourself to relax. Direct your attention to your feet. What sensations are present there? Continue the mental scan as you move upward through your body—legs, abdomen, arms, hands, neck, and finally, your head. Take note of any sensations or discomfort you encounter. It’s important not to attempt to alter or evaluate these sensations; the objective is simply to acknowledge them. Practicing body scans on a regular basis can contribute to enhancing your mindfulness.
Walking meditation. Find a quiet place 10 to 20 feet in length, and begin to walk slowly. Focus on the experience of walking, being aware of the sensations of standing and the subtle movements that keep your balance. When you reach the end of your path, turn and continue walking, maintaining awareness of your sensations.
Sitting meditation. Sit comfortably with your back straight, feet flat on the floor and hands in your lap. Breathing through your nose, focus on your breath moving in and out of your body. If physical sensations or thoughts interrupt your meditation, note the experience and then return your focus to your breath.
In summary, the phenomenon of mind wandering (MW) occurs when one’s attention shifts away from the external environment to internal thoughts. MW has a close connection to mental well-being and is associated with psychopathological conditions like anxiety and depression. Mindfulness practices aim to reduce mind wandering by promoting present-moment awareness and emotional regulation which may in turn help these conditions.
For more resources on mindfulness, please visit these websites:
Free Mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR): https://palousemindfulness.com/
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