This is the second of eight blog posts written by undergraduates in PSY102: Introduction to Cognitive Psychology, Summer Term I 2019.
What should I eat for dinner? What do I need to do when I return home? What should I do this weekend? All three questions above are questions we frequently ask ourselves when we begin to mind-wander in class, at work, and even at home.
Mind-wandering has commonly been defined and recognized as the unconscious process of getting distracted from a task at hand. Thus, mind-wandering has garnered a fairly negative connotation due to it being viewed as an uncontrollable phenomenon. But what if I told you that recent research shows that not only can we control our mind wandering with the presence of an upcoming task, but we can do so on a moment-to-moment basis as well?
And if we can indeed modulate and directly control our minds, can we find ways to mind-wander that would ultimately optimize our productivity? Could we potentially control our off-topic thoughts without seeing a loss in overall performance of a task?
To answer these questions, Harvard postdoc Paul Seli, who is now an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, and his team conducted a fascinating experiment. They knew from earlier work that our minds tend to wander more while completing easier tasks than difficult ones. Why? Because we simply need to use fewer executive resources to perform easy tasks and thus we can freely mind-wander without noticing a loss in performance. In fact, one could say that we are optimizing our executive functions and resources across a variety of different tasks instead of just one.
Seli hypothesized that people could control their mind wandering on the basis of their expectations of upcoming challenges in a task. To test this, he had research participants sit in front of a computer screen that showed a large analog clock. Researchers told each participant to click on the spacebar every time the clock struck 12:00. Seems simple right? Even simpler, the clock struck 12:00 every 20 seconds and thus it was completely predictable. To incentivize the participants to click the spacebar on time, a bonus payment was awarded for every correct response.
During some of the 20-second intervals, the participants were presented with what are called “thought probes.” These popped up on the screen to ask the participants whether or not their mind had just been wandering.
The participants were assured that their responses did not affect their bonus payments and the probes were presented above a paused clock face so that the participants still saw where the hand of the clock was while answering the question. Participants could either respond by clicking “on task” (meaning that they were focusing on the clock), “intentionally mind-wandering” (meaning that they were purposely thinking about something off-topic), or “unintentionally mind-wandering.” After a response was given, the question disappeared, and the clock resumed.
By using the thought probes to track the mind-wandering of participants on a second-by-second basis, Seli found that the participants tended to decrease their levels of mind-wandering as the clock approached 12:00. In other words, participants would freely mind-wander in the early stages of the hand’s rotation and then quickly refocus on the task at hand as the clock approached 12:00.
Seli showed that we have some ability to control a wandering mind. Instead of mind-wandering being solely dependent on the difficulty of the task, Seli found that we can control our mind-wandering on a moment-to-moment basis as the more difficult or pressing aspect of the task approaches.
Even if we are distracted, we have the ability to refocus when the task at hand becomes pressing. However, there is a time and place for mind-wandering and multitasking, and we should certainly not get too confident with our mind-wandering abilities.
Take mind-wandering and distracted driving for example. Approximately nine Americans are killed each day due to distracted driving and more than 1,000 people are injured. Therefore, just because you are overly familiar with a task does not mean that it’s not crucial and demanding. Thus, we shouldn’t undervalue the amount of executive resources and attention we need to focus and stay safe.
So, the next time you catch yourself thinking about your upcoming weekend, chances are that the task your completing isn’t too pressing, because if it were, you’d be using up all of your executive resources to focus.
Guest post by Jesse Lowey, Trinity 2021