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


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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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