You must know this moment well: you’re sitting at your keyboard intending to accomplish something when suddenly you’re reading a recipe for pan-baked oatmeal bread, checking the day’s ball game scores, or mulling over that conversation you had that turned a bit sour.
This mind wandering happens to me more than I like to admit. And according to a Harvard study that used an iPhone app to check what 2,250 people were thinking at random intervals, it happens to us all during almost 50% of our waking hours.
But there may be an upside to all this, in the view of social neuroscientists. That’s because the circuitry in the brain that lights up when our mind wanders mingles with the circuits for pondering our social and emotional lives. Very often our mind wanders to those areas of our lives where we have issues with those around us.
And that’s potentially a good thing. The mind wandering circuitry “directs us to think about other people’s minds – their thoughts, feelings, and goals,” as UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman puts it in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. This “promotes understanding and empathy, cooperation and consideration.”
At least that’s the hope. But there are two ways to think about the people conundrums in our lives, one helpful and the other a dead-end. In the latter, we ruminate, repeating the same worried thought loops over and over without getting anywhere. That’s a recipe for depression.
But if we can reflect on what’s going on in some relationship to come up with potentially positive ways to resolve a problem, then our rumination turns positive.
This productive reflection is what should happen in psychotherapy, or during a long talk with a good friend. But we don’t always need to go into therapy or turn to others to find solutions.
The circuits for mind wandering are also active during our most creative moments: when we’re thinking on our own. These are the times we tend to uncover novel, innovative insights, and often land on inspired fixes for our people conundrums.
Consider this the next time you’re beating yourself up over some healthy woolgathering.
Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence – Focus examines the overlooked and underrated asset of attention, and why it matters enormously for how we feel, and succeed, in life.
Wired to Connect: Dialogues on Social Intelligence – I talk with a variety of experts in their respective fields about maximizing our capacities to effectively negotiate complex social relationships and environments.
Working with Mindfulness – Mirabai Bush provides a range of guided audio exercises to practice before or after a meeting, when struggling with a difficult project or person, or when feeling distracted or frustrated.
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