A new study suggests that a wandering mind is associated with working memory and occurs when the full attention of the mind is not necessary to accomplish a current task.
Working memory capacity has been associated with general measures of intelligence, such as reading comprehension and IQ score.
According to researchers, our minds are wandering half the time, drifting off to thoughts unrelated to what we’re doing — did I remember to turn off the light? What should I have for dinner?
In the new study, researchers believe a wandering mind is linked to working memory — a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously. Working memory allows an individual to multi-task and retain information while performing other activities.
In the study, graduate student Daniel Levinson and psychologists Drs. Richard Davidson and Jonathan Smallwood discovered a person’s working memory capacity relates to the tendency of their mind to wander during a routine assignment.
The investigators asked volunteers 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 people’s 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.
Researchers say the finding is the first to associate working memory and mind wandering, and that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.
“What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” Smallwood says.
However, when the task became more complicated, or when a simple task was filled with distractors, the link between working memory and mind wandering disappeared.
“Giving your full attention to your perceptual experience actually equalized people, as though it cut off mind-wandering at the pass,” Levinson says.
Investigators believe the study shows the importance of working memory for everyday tasks. They also believe the findings provide insight into the thoughts that pop into our head throughout the day.
“Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life – when they’re on the bus, when they’re cycling to work, when they’re in the shower – are probably supported by working memory,” says Smallwood.
“Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems.”
Experts say that working memory is associated with staying focused although mind wandering can cause you to lose track of your goal.
As an example, many people have had the experience of arriving at home with no recollection of the actual trip to get there, or of suddenly realizing that they’ve turned several pages in a book without comprehending any of the words.
“It’s almost like your attention was so absorbed in the mind wandering that there wasn’t any left over to remember your goal to read,” Levinson says.
Researchers believe that where your mind wanders may be an indication of underlying priorities being held in your working memory, whether conscious or not. But 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, says Levinson. “If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too.”
Levinson is now studying how directed training to increase working memory will affect wandering thoughts. He hopes to better understand the connection and how people can control it.
“Mind wandering isn’t free — it takes resources,” he says. “You get to decide how you want to use your resources.”
The new study was published online in the journal Psychological Science.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison