Friday, November 12, 2010

now what was I thinking about ?

Mind-wandering a fact of life, study says
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff November 12, 2010
Regardless of what they are doing, almost without exception, people’s minds wander — whether they mull over
arguments with loved ones in the shower, think about weekend plans at work, or stumble on a creative new insight on
their commute.
Everyone knows they do it, but new research by Harvard researchers, which used the iPhone to periodically interrupt
2,250 people’s lives, found that about half the time, people’s minds are wandering. Most strikingly, they found that
overall, people whose minds are wandering are less happy than those focused on the task at hand.
“It’s paradoxical and ironic, in the sense that you would think if you leave the present, you’d go someplace better, but
people seem to go to places that make them less happy,’’ said Matthew Killingsworth, a psychology graduate student
at Harvard University and lead author of the work, published today in the journal Science. He said mind-wandering
obviously has its benefits, but the research has given him some insight into his mood when he is feeling down.

In order to measure people’s errant minds and moods, Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at
Harvard, took advantage of modern technology to randomly and seamlessly interrupt people’s days to ask a few
simple questions. People from ages 18 to 88 signed up for a Web application that periodically sent them an e-mail or
text message to ask a simple set of questions: How happy were they at the moment? What were they doing? Were
they thinking about something other than the task at hand, and if so, were they thinking of something pleasant, neutral,
or negative?
Researchers found that 47 percent of the time, people reported that their minds were wandering. In nearly two dozen
activities reported, people’s minds were wandering more than 30 percent of the time, with a single exception — sex —
in which people seemed to be both single-mindedly focused on what they were doing and happy. Overall, people were
less happy when their minds were adrift than when they were focused on the activity they were doing.
Eric Klinger, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota Morris who began studying daydreaming and
mind-wandering several decades ago, said the finding that people’s minds are untethered to their daily lives about half
the time affirms what researchers have measured in smaller groups.
“Daydreaming and mind-wandering serve a number of crucial roles,’’ he said. “They’re nature’s way of keeping us
The tone of the mind-wandering was closely connected with happiness — people who reported pleasant
mind-wandering were happier than those who said they were having neutral or unpleasant thoughts. But the
researchers found that people were not happier when they were having pleasant thoughts than when they were
focused on what they were doing. That resonates with messages seen in everything from self-help books to religion,
in which people are told to focus on the present, the authors said.
Mind-wandering, Killingsworth said, “might run amok, leave us distracted from the things that we’re doing or cause us
to sit there ruminating on something that happened in the past that we can’t change or do anything about.’’
Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who is a leader in studying
mind-wandering, said the finding is dramatic. But he was cautious about the interpretation of the results — the authors’
statement that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.’’
There may be a type of mind-wandering — repetitive, negative rumination on things people can’t change — that is
detrimental. But Schooler noted that mind-wandering is critical in planning and problem-solving, and there is suggestive
evidence that mind-wandering is an important source of creativity.
“What I wouldn’t want people to conclude is you shouldn’t mind-wander — that it’s necessarily a counterproductive
activity,’’ Schooler said. “Even if there are times when mind-wandering causes one to be unhappy, it doesn’t
necessarily means it’s not the thing one should be doing.’’
The new work is part of a larger project, seeking to understand the causes of human happiness. To participate in the
study, go to Carolyn Johnson can be reached at [email protected].

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