Emerging research suggests a wandering mind may not be a sign of unhappiness, rather a sign of cellular aging.
Scientists from the University of California – San Francisco assessed the length of telomeres, the part of a chromosome that prevents the chromosome from aging. Telomeres are an emerging biomarker for cellular and general bodily aging.
In the study, telomere length was assessed in association with the tendency to be present in the moment versus the tendency to mind wander, on 239 healthy, midlife women ranging in age from 50 to 65 years.
Researchers defined being present in the moment as an inclination to be focused on current tasks, while mind wandering was described as the inclination to have thoughts about things other than the present or being elsewhere.
Investigators discovered those who reported more mind-wandering had shorter telomeres, while those who reported more presence in the moment, or having a greater focus and engagement with their current activities, had longer telomeres, even after adjusting for current stress.
Telomeres typically shorten with age and in response to psychological and physiological stressors. In research pioneered at UCSF, scientists have discovered that telomere shortness predicts early disease and mortality.
In the study, researchers assessed mind-wandering and telomere length at the same time — as such, the researchers are uncertain if mind wandering leads to shorter telomeres, whether the reverse occurs, or if some common third factor is contributing to both.
Prior research has discovered that mindful meditation interventions are associated with increased activity of an enzyme known as telomerase, which is responsible for protecting and in some cases, replenishing telomeres.
Mindfulness meditation focuses attention on the present with a compassionate attitude of acceptance and has been found to be associated with improvements in some aspects of health.
The new research findings support the possibility that a focus on the present may be part of what promotes health measurable at the cellular level.
“Our attentional state — where our thoughts rest at any moment — turns out to be a fascinating window into our well-being. It may be affected by our emotional state as well as shape our emotional state,” said Elissa Epel, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and lead author on the study.
“In our healthy sample, people who report being more engaged in their current activities tend to have longer telomeres. We don’t yet know how generalizable or important this relationship is.”
UCSF researchers say that future studies will include a series of classes to promote more mindful presence, to see if this intervention protects telomere maintenance or even lengthens telomeres.
In the current study, participants self-reported a tendency to mind wander, and were measured for aspects of psychological distress and well-being.
The sample was highly educated and had a narrow range of both chronological age and psychological stress (most were low stress), all of which might have contributed to the ability to detect this relationship, Epel said.
The study is the first to link attentional state to telomere length and to control for stress and depression. Previous studies have shown links between telomere length and particular types of stress and depression. Since this study relied on self-reported attentional state, she said, further studies directly measuring presence and mind wandering will be needed.
“This study was a first step and suggests it’s worth delving into understanding the link between mind wandering and cell health to get a better understanding of whether there is causality and reversibility,” said Epel.
“For example, does reducing mind wandering promote better cell health? Or are these relationships just reflective of some underlying long-standing characteristics of a person?”
“Results suggest the possibility that the attitude of acceptance of negative experiences might be one of the factors that promotes greater ability to be more present – to be okay with one’s current experience and not avoid the unpleasant aspects of everyday experiences,” she said.
“A number of emotion theories suggest that greater attentional control leads to less suppression of negative emotions, and thus less of the rebound effect of unsuccessful suppression,” said Wendy Berry Mendes, Ph.D., associate professor and co-author on this study.
“Alternatively, attentional control may help us interpret emotions in a more constructive way, what we call ‘positive reappraisals.’ Such styles of thinking have been associated with healthy physiological states.”
The study is published in the new journal Clinical Psychological Science.