I have always been told that I needed focus that those times I tended have a wandering mind or day dream that I was being silly. Seriously a wandering mind is basically walking in circles right?
But is it really a bad thing?
In geometry, Thales‘ theorem states that if A, B and C are points on a circle where the line AC is a diameter of the circle, then the angle ∠ABC is a right angle. I know this because that day in Math class I was focused. But you know what else I discovered ? Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher who is credited with developing the theory, is said to have to been “so eager to know what was going on in heaven that he could not see what was before his feet” and had a habit of falling into wells. In other words he spent a lot of time with his mind wandering.
As we see a wandering mind is not always a bad thing. It has long been associated with creative types: I bet many super thinky people (something I have been called and not in a nice way) you know have probably do the same.
I think it begs the question; Are our mental meanderings a must-have feature in our mental system?
If My Mind Is Wandering, Am I Losing It?
We know that a wondering mind has maladaptive connotations. A study by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that folks are “less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing.” For instance, if you’re commuting to work, you’ll feel better if you’re focused on the slog at hand rather than letting your mind get lost. Their research shows that wandering can also be adaptive to our hyper-busy, hyper-social lives because, “not all minds that wander are lost: the importance of a balanced perspective on the mind-wandering state.”
They found that yes, mental wandering—which they term as the much more stately self-generated thought—may lead to negative experiences, but that depends on the content of the thought. As in, if your mind begins to wander in the form of depressive ruminations—thinking of the ways that fate has vexed, hexed, and jilted you—then the user experience of your commute is probably going to get worse.
But wandering need not be grump-inducingly destructive; if you’re good at it, self-generated thought can be life-affirmingly constructive.
A Wandering Mind Helps Us Project Our Past and Future Selves
Peter Killeen is psychologist explained the neurophysiological step-by-step process to mental wandering. He states that hindsight and foresight—what you might call mental time travel—are unique to humans. Looking back on our experiences allows us to integrate them into our present time, allowing us to act with a little more wisdom. Additionally, self-generated thought allows us to consolidate our memories into a sense of self.
A Wandering Mind Helps Us Make Successful Long-Term Plans
This is a pretty awesome survival technique: if you can anticipate what the future will be like, you can align your present actions to it, whether you’re planning to kill a mammoth or build a career.
A Wandering Mind Can Be a Source of Creative Inspiration
Psychologists call the time between when you’re presented with a complex problem and you arrive at its solution using a process called incubation. Research has shown that if you’re working on a simple task—something like brushing your teeth—letting your mind wander allows for connections to arise. But if you’re doing something complicated—like driving down a busy road—you’d best pay attention.
The lesson, then, is to have a sense of meta-mindfulness: If we’re doing something simple, we can let our minds wander. But if the task at hand is complex, we might fall into a well.