Scientists finally know why we get distracted — and how we can stay on track

When psychology Jonathan Smallwood He set out to study mind-wandering about 25 years ago, and few of his peers thought this was a very good idea. How can one hope to investigate these spontaneous and unexpected thoughts that arise when people stop caring about their surroundings and the task at hand? Ideas that cannot be linked to any measurable external behavior?

But Smallwood, now at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, went ahead. Use as his tool Computer job is downright boring It was intended to reproduce the kinds of lapses of attention that make us pour milk into someone’s cup when they order black coffee. He began by asking study participants some basic questions to gain insight into when and why minds tend to stray, and what topics they tend to stray toward. After a while, he began scanning the participants’ brains as well, to get a look at what was going on there during mind-wandering.

Smallwood learns that Unhappy minds tend to dwell on the past, while happy minds often think about the future. He also became convinced that wandering through our memories is crucial to helping prepare us for what is to come. Although some types of mind-wandering – such as getting into irreparable problems – May be associated with depressionSmallwood now believes that mind wandering is rarely a waste of time. It’s just our brain trying to get a little work done when it’s under the impression that there isn’t much going on.

Smallwood, who co-authored An impressive 2015 overview of mind-wandering research In the annual review of psychology, He is the first to admit that many questions still need to be answered.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

There are good reasons for your mind wandering. well-known magazine

Is mind-wandering the same as daydreaming, or would you say they are different?

I think it’s a similar process used in a different context. When you are on vacation, and you have a lot of free time, you might say that you are dreaming about what you want to do next. But when you’re under pressure to perform, you’ll experience the same mind-wandering thoughts.

I think it helps to talk about basic processes: automatic thinking, or the separation of attention from perception, which is what happens when our thoughts detach from our perception of the environment. These two processes occur during mind-wandering and daydreaming.

It often takes a while for us to notice the fuzziness of our mind. How can you catch up to study it with other people?

At first, we gave people demo tasks that were really boring, so that mind-wandering happens a lot. We’d just ask from time to time, “Are you mind-wandering?” While recording brain activity in an fMRI scanner.

But what I’ve realized, after doing studies like this for so long, is that if we want to know how thinking works in the real world, where people do things like watch TV or go for a run, most of the data is never going to tell us much.

So We are now trying to study these situations. And instead of doing experiments where we just ask, “Are you absent-minded?” Now we ask a lot of different questions, such as: “Are your ideas detailed? Are they positive? Are they distracting you?”

How and why did you decide to study mind wandering?

I started studying mind-wandering early in my career when I was young and naive.

I didn’t really understand at the time why no one had studied it. Psychology was focusing on measurable external behavior at the time. I said to myself: This is not what I want to understand about my thoughts. What I want to know is: Why do they come, where do they come from, and why do they insist even if they interfere with attention to the here and now?

Around the same time, brain-imaging technologies were developing, and they were telling neuroscientists that something was going on in the brain even when it wasn’t busy with a behavioral task. Large areas of the brain are now called default networkDo the opposite: If you assign people a task, activity in these areas decreases.

When scientists made this link between brain activity and mind-wandering, it became fashionable. I was very lucky, because I did not expect any of that when I started my PhD, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. But I saw it all unfold.

Different subsystems are responsible for different areas of cognition. well-known magazine

Could you say then that mind-wandering is the default mode of our brains?

It turns out to be more complicated than that. At first, the researchers were pretty sure that the default mode network rarely increased its activity during tasks. But all of these tasks were focused on the outside – they involved doing something in the outside world. When researchers later asked people to do a task that didn’t require them to interact with their environment—like Think of the future – It has also activated the default mode network.

Recently, we have identified much simpler tasks that also activate the default mode network. If you let people see a series of shapes like triangles or squares on the screen, and often you surprise them and ask something — like, “In the last experiment, which side was the triangle on?” – areas inside The default mode network increases activity when making this decision. This is a tricky note if you think the default mode network is just a mind-wandering system.

But the common denominator between the two cases is that the person uses information from memory. I now believe that the default mode network is essential to any thinking based on information from memory – This includes mind-wandering.

Is it possible to prove that this is indeed the case?

In a recent study, instead of asking people if they were paying attention or not, We went one step further. People in a scanner were reading short, factual sentences on the screen. Occasionally, we show them a prompt that says, “Remember,” followed by an item from the list of things from their past that they had previously given. So, instead of reading, they will remember the thing we showed them. We can make them remember.

What we found is that the brain scans in this experiment looked remarkably similar to mind-wandering. This is important: it gives us more control over our thought pattern than when it occurs automatically, as in naturally occurring mind-wandering. Of course, this is also a weakness, because it is not automatic. But we’ve already done a lot of spontaneous studies.

When we get people to remember things from a list, we sum up a lot of what we’ve seen in spontaneous mind-wandering. This suggests that some of the activity we see when minds wander is indeed related to recalling memories. We now believe that the separation between attention and perception occurs because people remember.

Mind wandering shows up in brain scans. well-known magazine

Nowadays, many of the idle moments that once wandered our minds now seem to be spent scrolling through our phones. How do you think this might change how our brain works?

The interesting thing about social media and mind wandering, I think, is that they may have similar motivations. Mind wandering is very social. in our studies, we lock people up in little booths and have them do these tasks and they keep coming out and saying, “I’m thinking of my friends.” This tells us that keeping up with others is very important to people.

Social groups are so important to us as a species that we spend most of our time trying to anticipate what other people are going to do, and I think social media fills part of the gap that mind-wandering is trying to bridge. It’s like identifying key social information: you can try to imagine what your friend is doing, or you can figure it out online. Although, of course, there is an important difference: When you’re mind-wandering, you’re asking for your own ideas. Scrolling in social media is more passive.

Could there be a way for us to suppress mind wandering in potentially dangerous situations?

Mind wandering can be both a benefit and a curse, but I wouldn’t be sure we know yet when stopping it is a good idea. In our studies right now, we’re trying to map how people think across a range of different types of tasks. Hopefully this approach will help us identify when mind-wandering is likely to be beneficial or not — and when we should try to control it and when we shouldn’t.

For example, in our studies, smarter people don’t mind wandering around a lot when a task is difficult but You can do it more when the tasks are easy. It is possible that they use idle time when the outside world is not demanding their attention to think about other important matters. This highlights the uncertainty about whether mind-wandering is always a bad thing because this type of outcome means it can potentially be beneficial in some circumstances.

This map of how people think in different situations has become very important in our research. This is the work I will focus on now, possibly for the rest of my career.

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