People who are prone to mind wandering are also more likely to be distracted by irrelevant external events, according to new research by the University of Sussex.
“Our study suggests that people who find it harder to ignore distracting things happening around them also find it harder to ignore their own irrelevant thoughts, and vice versa,” said psychologist Dr. Sophie Forster.
“This was surprising as other mind-wandering researchers have suggested that people who spend more time focused on their internal thoughts might be less receptive to effects of distractions in the external environment.
“This doesn’t seem to be the case.”
For the study, participants were asked to complete simple tasks such as identifying whether a letter flashed on a screen was an X or an N. Pictures that were completely irrelevant to the assignment (cartoon characters) also flashed on the screen as external distractors.
People were generally slower to respond when these irrelevant external distractions showed up on the screen. However, this effect was especially strong among those who had labeled themselves as frequent mind-wanderers.
“Mind wandering can be a very disruptive form of distraction that can negatively impact on whatever task we are doing. In fact, previous research has demonstrated that mind-wandering interferes even with fairly simple tasks.
Prevention of mind-wandering can be particularly hard, as while a person may be able to simply remove themselves from many sources of external distraction (e.g., by moving to a quiet room), internally-generated distractions clearly cannot be escaped in this manner!” she said.
The researchers believe the findings could be useful for the study of some clinical disorders. For example, current diagnostic checklists for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may mention symptoms such as being easily distracted — without specifying whether the sources are internal or external.
“It’s fascinating to study mind wandering because we don’t yet understand its neurological significance — nor why some people do it more than others.
“While it can be deeply frustrating for the mind wanderer — and those with them — that they can’t keep focused on the task in hand, it’s possible there may also be all kinds of benefits for creative or strategic thinking,” Forster said.
The research is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.
Source: University of Sussex