At school, did your teacher ever scold you for staring into space? Do you find it difficult to accomplish a task because you’re too busy peering out of the window? Well an emerging body of research suggests that allowing your mind to wander may be a health part of your mental life. Our minds spend as much as 50% of our waking hours wandering, jumping between memories, imaginings, plans and goals (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/). Mind wandering is defined as thought unrelated to tasks or external stimuli and much of the research literature labels it as “task unrelated thought” or TUT. In a recent review of over 200 studies of various aspects of TUT, researchers at the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley argued that understanding how and why the mind moved freely was vital for understanding how the minds of mentally ill people might work, as emotion or worry can often force the brain to return to a single thought. (http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v17/n11/full/nrn.2016.113.html). For example, the mind of someone with ADHD may wander more freely, but the mind of someone with anxiety or depression may have the tendency to get stuck on a single thought.
There is a growing body of research that also suggests that mind wandering and creativity may be linked, as creativity may be an extension of daydreaming. Creative people often practice a variation of mind wandering called “positive constructive daydreaming”, a method of thinking associated with self-awareness, goal orientated thinking and increased compassion. The free play of thoughts that occurs in mind-wandering may enable us to think more flexibly and draw more liberally upon our vast internal reservoir of memories, feelings and images in order to create new and unusual connections. This point is illustrated by the often retold story of Archimedes, tasked with determining the metallic composition of a votive crown made for the temple of Kind Hiero II. After reaching an impasse, the scientist and philosopher took a bath and, after noticing how the water rose when he entered the bath and realising that this principle could help him solve his question, shouted “eureka” and ran into the streets naked. While the story may be apocryphal, it certainly illustrates the significance of stepping back from a problem and letting your mind drift in order to encourage creative, and eventually more productive, thought.
Mind wandering is not only a normal and healthy part of mental life, it is potentially very useful, and an interesting diagnostic tool for those dealing with psychological challenges. So the next time you find yourself drifting, perhaps when you are walking or doing to dishes, don’t allow you self to be frustrated. Instead, perhaps consider where your wandering mind went, and ask yourself if it might be revealing.
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