A wandering mind can be a good thing, say researchers

It may sound like a contradiction, but new research suggests that people whose minds wander often have more “working memory,” which can help them stay focused.

Published online in the journal Psychological Science, the study, by Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at Switzerland’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, says that a person’s working memory capacity relates to the tendency of their mind to wander during a routine assignment.

They describe working memory as a mental workspace that allows us to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously.

For the study, volunteers were asked to perform one of two simple tasks — either pressing a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or simply tapping in time with one’s breath — and compared their propensity to drift off.

“We intentionally use tasks that will never use all of their attention,” Smallwood said. “And then we ask, how do people use their idle resources?”

Throughout the tasks, the researchers checked in periodically with the participants to ask if their minds were on task or wandering. At the end, they measured each participant’s working memory capacity, scored by their ability to remember a series of letters given to them interspersed with easy math questions.

In both tasks, there was a clear correlation.

“People with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these simple tasks,” says Levinson, though their performance on the test was not compromised.

They say the study seems to suggest that when circumstances for a task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing.

The team says working memory can help us stay focused, but if our minds start to wander, those resources get misdirected and we can lose track of our goal.

The researchers added that it doesn’t mean that people with high working memory capacity are doomed to a straying mind.

“The bottom line is that working memory is a resource and it’s all about how you use it,” Levinson says. “If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too.”

— Sun Media News Services