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Mind-wandering may help enhance creativity, job performance and general well-being, studies show

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When writ­ing a song or a piece of prose, I often choose to let my mind wan­der, hop­ing the muse will strike. If it does, it not only moves my work along but feels great, too!

That’s why I was trou­bled by stud­ies that found an asso­ci­a­tion between mind-wan­der­ing and prob­lems like unhap­pi­ness and depression—and even a short­er life expectan­cy. This research sug­gests that focus­ing one’s thoughts on the present moment is linked to well-being, while spac­ing out—which I per­son­al­ly love to do—is not.

Now, new stud­ies are bring­ing nuance to this sci­ence. Whether or not mind-wan­der­ing is a neg­a­tive depends on a lot of factors—like whether it’s pur­pose­ful or spon­ta­neous, the con­tent of your mus­ings, and what kind of mood you are in. In some cas­es, a wan­der­ing mind can lead to cre­ativ­i­ty, bet­ter moods, greater pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, and more con­crete goals.

Here is what some recent research says about the upsides of a mean­der­ing mind.

Mind-wandering can make you more creative

It’s prob­a­bly not a big sur­prise that mind-wan­der­ing aug­ments creativity—particularly “diver­gent think­ing,” or being able to come up with nov­el ideas.

In one study, researchers gave par­tic­i­pants a cre­ativ­i­ty test called the Unusu­al Uses Task that asks you to dream up nov­el uses for an every­day item, like a paper­clip or a news­pa­per. Between the first and sec­ond stages, par­tic­i­pants either engaged in an unde­mand­ing task to encour­age mind-wan­der­ing or a demand­ing task that took all of their con­cen­tra­tion; or they were giv­en a rest­ing peri­od or no rest. Those par­tic­i­pants who engaged in mind-wan­der­ing dur­ing the unde­mand­ing task improved their per­for­mance much more than any of the oth­er groups. Tak­ing their focus off of the task and mind-wan­der­ing, instead, were crit­i­cal to suc­cess.

The find­ings report­ed here pro­vide arguably the most direct evi­dence to date that con­di­tions that favor mind-wan­der­ing also enhance cre­ativ­i­ty,” write the authors. In fact, they add, mind-wan­der­ing may “serve as a foun­da­tion for cre­ative inspi­ra­tion.”

As a more recent study found, mind-wan­der­ing improved people’s cre­ativ­i­ty above and beyond the pos­i­tive effects of their read­ing abil­i­ty or flu­id intel­li­gence, the gen­er­al abil­i­ty to solve prob­lems or puz­zles.

Mind-wan­der­ing seems to involve the default net­work of the brain, which is known to be active when we are not engaged direct­ly in tasks and is also relat­ed to cre­ativ­i­ty.

So per­haps I’m right to let my focus wan­der while writ­ing: It helps my mind put togeth­er infor­ma­tion in nov­el and poten­tial­ly com­pelling ways with­out my real­iz­ing it. It’s no won­der that my best inspi­ra­tions seem to come when I’m in the show­er or hik­ing for miles on end.

Mind-wandering can make you happier…depending on the content

The rela­tion­ship between mind-wan­der­ing and mood may be more com­pli­cat­ed than we thought.

In one study, researchers pinged par­tic­i­pants on a reg­u­lar basis to see what they were doing, whether or not their minds were wan­der­ing, and how they were feel­ing. As in an ear­li­er exper­i­ment, peo­ple tend­ed to be in a neg­a­tive mood when they were mind-wan­der­ing. But when researchers exam­ined the con­tent of people’s thoughts dur­ing mind-wan­der­ing, they found an inter­est­ing caveat: If par­tic­i­pants’ minds were engaged in inter­est­ing, off-task mus­ings, their moods became more pos­i­tive rather than more neg­a­tive.

As the authors con­clude, “Those of us who reg­u­lar­ly find our minds in the clouds—musing about the top­ics that most engage us—can take solace in know­ing that at least this form of mind-wan­der­ing is asso­ci­at­ed with ele­vat­ed mood.”

It may be that mood affects mind-wan­der­ing more than the oth­er way around. In a sim­i­lar study, researchers con­clud­ed that feel­ing sad or being in a bad mood tend­ed to lead to unhap­py mind-wan­der­ing, but that mind-wan­der­ing itself didn’t lead to lat­er bad moods. Ear­li­er exper­i­ments may have con­flat­ed mind-wan­der­ing with rumination—an unhealthy pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with past fail­ures that is tied to depres­sion.

This study sug­gests that mind-wan­der­ing is not some­thing that is inher­ent­ly bad for our hap­pi­ness,” write the authors. Instead, “Sad­ness is like­ly to lead the mind to wan­der and that mind-wan­der­ing is like­ly to be [emo­tion­al­ly] neg­a­tive.”

A review of the research on mind-wan­der­ing came to a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion: Mind-wan­der­ing is dis­tinct from rumi­na­tion and there­fore has a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship to mood.

Can we actu­al­ly direct our mind-wan­der­ing toward more pos­i­tive thoughts and away from rumi­na­tion? It turns out that we can! One study found that peo­ple who engaged in com­pas­sion-focused med­i­ta­tion prac­tices had more pos­i­tive mind-wan­der­ing. As an added bonus, peo­ple with more pos­i­tive mind-wan­der­ing were also more car­ing toward them­selves and oth­ers, which itself is tied to hap­pi­ness.

Mind-wandering may improve job performance

Tak­ing a break from work can be a good thing—perhaps because our minds are freer to wan­der.

Mind-wan­der­ing is par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful when work is mind-numb­ing. In one study, par­tic­i­pants report­ed on their mind-wan­der­ing dur­ing a repet­i­tive task. Par­tic­i­pants who engaged in more mind-wan­der­ing per­formed bet­ter and faster, decreas­ing their response times sig­nif­i­cant­ly. The researchers spec­u­lat­ed that mind-wan­der­ing allowed peo­ple to go off-task briefly, reset, and see data with fresh eyes—so that they didn’t miss sud­den changes.

In anoth­er study, researchers aimed to fig­ure out what parts of the brain were impli­cat­ed in mind-wan­der­ing and dis­cov­ered some­thing unex­pect­ed. When their frontal lobes were stim­u­lat­ed with a small elec­tri­cal cur­rent to boost mind-wan­der­ing, people’s per­for­mance on an atten­tion task slight­ly improved.

Of course, not every job calls for mind-wan­der­ing. A sur­geon or a dri­ver should stay focused on the task at hand, since mind-wan­der­ing could be detri­men­tal to both. On the oth­er hand, even for them it might be reju­ve­nat­ing to take a mind-wan­der­ing break after their work­day is over, lead­ing to more focused atten­tion the next time around.

Mind-wandering may help us with goal-setting

It seems like mind-wan­der­ing would be detri­men­tal when it comes to plan­ning for the future. In fact, some research sug­gests mind-wan­der­ing can improve goal-set­ting.

In a recent neu­ro­science exper­i­ment, par­tic­i­pants did an unde­mand­ing task and report­ed on the con­tent of their thoughts as researchers scanned their brains with fMRI. After­wards, they wrote for 15 min­utes about per­son­al goals or TV pro­grams (the con­trol group). Then, they repeat­ed these two tasks—the unde­mand­ing one and writ­ing about goals or TV.

Ana­lyz­ers unaware of the study’s pur­pose were asked to assess the con­crete­ness of par­tic­i­pants’ goal-set­ting and TV pro­gram descrip­tions. The result? Peo­ple with wan­der­ing minds—who prob­a­bly start­ed mus­ing about what they real­ly want­ed in life after the first writ­ing session—ultimately came up with more con­crete and high­er-qual­i­ty goal descrip­tions in the sec­ond ses­sion. Over the course of the exper­i­ment, their brains also showed an increase in con­nec­tiv­i­ty between the hip­pocam­pus and the pre-frontal cortex—areas impli­cat­ed in goal-set­ting.

Research has also found that, the more peo­ple engage in mind-wan­der­ing dur­ing a task, the more they are will­ing to wait for a reward after­wards. Accord­ing to the researchers, this sug­gests that mind-wan­der­ing helps delay grat­i­fi­ca­tion and “engages process­es asso­ci­at­ed with the suc­cess­ful man­age­ment of long-term goals.”

On the oth­er hand, some research sug­gests mind-wan­der­ing makes us less “gritty”—or less able to stay focused on our goals to completion—especially if it is spon­ta­neous rather than delib­er­ate. So, it may be impor­tant to con­sid­er where you are in the process of goal cre­ation before decid­ing mind-wan­der­ing would be a good idea.

None of this sug­gests that mind-wan­der­ing is bet­ter for us than being focused. More like­ly, both aspects of cog­ni­tion serve a pur­pose. Under the right cir­cum­stances, a wan­der­ing mind may actu­al­ly ben­e­fit us and pos­si­bly those around us. The trick is to know when to set your mind free.

jill_suttie.thumbnail— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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