NEW YORK: Why does the mind wander? What is the psyche of a ‘drifter’? How does one cure oneself of attention deficiency, low concentration and high distraction levels? How much of mind wandering is within permissible limits? Does mapping of mind wandering infringe on the territory of dreamers, visualizers and thinkers? These are some mind boggling questions which research at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA, intends to get to the bottom of.
Researchers have a good reason to take up this area of micro study, which they feel is “just too common to be ignored”. The high rate of prevalence amongst all age groups makes it a pervasive psychological phenomenon, which could impact professional and personal lives.
Unfortunately, so far mainstream psychology has not paid much attention to this common mental habit. But now, with a spate of new studies chipping away at its mysteries, we may have some findings and statistics on the whys and wherefores of mind wandering, along with recommended interventions.
Once solutions start flowing in, the community to benefit most would be students who will be able to keep their focus on textbooks and lectures and vehicle drivers who will succeed in keeping their minds on the road, rather than let it dwell on things which could distract and lead to accidents. In a lighter vein, the researchers also felt that relationship of the heart may also stand to benefit as lovers figured out why their minds wandered at moments most crucial to their love life!
Michael Kane, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, sampled the thoughts of students at eight random times a day for a week. He found that on an average, they were not thinking about what they were doing 30% of the time. For some students it ranged anywhere between 80-90% of the time. Out of the 126 participants, only one denied any mind wandering at the sampled moments.
“If you want to understand people’s mental lives, this is a phenomenon we ought to be thinking about,” Kane said. She also clarified that a lot of mind wandering could be of the harmless variety, as when you think about a work problem while munching a cheeseburger or letting the mind drift while watching a boring television serial. The problem comes when it distracts you from something you should actually be paying attention to.
The result of that can be tragic. Kane noted the 2003 case of a college professor who drove to work in Irvine, California, one hot August day, parked and went to his office. Whatever was going through his mind, he had lost track of the fact that his 10-month-old son was in the back seat. The boy died in the heat. In 2004, virtually the same thing happened in Santa Ana, California.
A more common task that demands concentration is reading. Even here, people’s minds wander 15-20% of the time, said Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Most of the time the mind wanderers are oblivious of the fact that while they are in a particular moment physically, mentally they are far far away.
In Kane’s study, scheduled for publication later this year, volunteers carried devices that beeped at random times and asked questions about their thoughts. Most of the time when caught mind wandering, they said they had deliberately stopped focusing on what they were doing.