The Good, the Bad and the Wandering Mind

The scientific investigation of self-generated thought is enigmatic: we all intuitively grasp the experience because of our familiarity with mind-wandering and daydreaming and  yet we often have problems incorporating this process into the pantheon of psychology or neuroscience.  On the one hand, self-generated thought is a universal human experience, on the other we are all too familiar with its negative consequences: mind-wandering interferes with our ability to read, and ruminating about problems in our personal lives often does little to improve our well-being.

In the last couple of weeks a number of studies that explore the darker side of mind-wandering have been published. For example, recently a study in the British Medical Journal it was shown that mind-wandering was a cause of automobile accidents (http://injuryprevention.bmj.com/content/18/Suppl_1/A200.2.short).  In a quasi-experiment with almost 1000 participants, the authors demonstrated that mind-wandering, especially with a highly disturbing content, was a significant predictor of errors. This study highlights the dangers that can arise from too much mind-wandering. Along the same lines, in a study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, Epel and colleagues examined telomere length in relation to the amount of mind-wandering a person experienced (http://cpx.sagepub.com/content/1/1/75.short). Teleomere length is a proximal measure for aging, and the authors analysed data from 239 women for whom mind-wandering was also measured.  Individuals who reported the most mind-wandering (defined as not being fully engaged in the moment coupled with a feeling that you did not want to be where they were doing what they are doing) had the shortest telomere lengths. This line of evidence suggests that individuals who mind-wander are likely to live shorter than those who do not.

Together these data suggest that the prognosis for someone who mind wanders is not good: if you are lucky enough not to crash your car, you will be unlikely to live to a ripe old age. As you read about these studies you may have thought: Hey! I mind wander a lot this is not good news. This observation should illustrate something strange about the results of these studies: If most people worry that they mind-wander too much shouldn’t most people have a car crash, or die relatively young?  According to the NY times the likelihood of having a fatal car crash is 1 in 84 (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/how-scared-should-we-be/) whereas according to the most comprehensive survey of mind-wandering data, based on experience sampling data collected from almost 2000 subjects, most people are mind-wandering almost half of the time (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/330/6006/932.abstract). Fortunately, most car accidents do not lead to a fatality; nonetheless there seems to be something out of whack with these statistics. If everyone mind wandered half of the time it seems intuitively that the risk of death by car accident would be higher. Likewise, it seems statistically unlikely that a behavior that most people do can lead them to live shorter lives: length of life is defined normatively in reference to a population and so any influence that is endemic in a population would lower the overall age of the population. This would make it hard for mind-wandering to reduce the length of someone’s life.  Setting these statistical irregularities aside, these studies are also hard to reconcile with the observations associating self-generated thought with capacities such as creativity as well as the ability to delay gratification that I covered in an earlier blog  (https://themindwanders.com/2012/12/01/productive-daydreaming/).

How can we then make sense of these data? One answer is that just as there is not one shoe that fits every foot, there is not one type of mind-wandering.  Although, the authors of both experiments used different definitions of the experience, they focused on elements of mind-wandering that are intuitively bad: especially distracting or negative episodes. Some people limit their daydreams to situations and they often do well in daily life; others probably have mind-wandering episodes with quite optimistic content. As the capacity to self-generate thought allows the mind to cover as many topics as it can imagine (literally) it seems that it is not mind-wandering per se that we should be focused on when trying to improve health and well-being; Rather if we want to be happy we should care what we mind-wander about. If we don’t want to have an accident we should try not to do it when operating heavy machinery or other activities that a lapse in focus can lead to calamitous consequences. So a careful consideration of this research suggests that it may not be as bleak for mind wanders as at first glance. Unless your mind-wandering is highly distracting you will probably be less likely to have a car crash than these experiments suggest, while if your mind-wandering is not negative in tone this may not compromise your chances of living to a ripe old age.

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