distracted school girl

Mind Wandering versus Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path

My Take

Mindfulness. It seems to be the holy grail for everything these days. From productivity improvement to psychotherapy. It also seems to be something we are not particularly good at, as this episode of South Park hilariously illustrates (skip forward to minute 10). A 2010 study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that we are mentally absent for half of our waking hours.

In Howard Rheingold’s 1993 book Virtual Communities, one of the earliest works to chronicle the reality of life online, he laid out two rules for the coming age: “Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”

There is solid evidence of the value of paying attention to where we are paying attention. Other research cited in Rowland’s article found that we can blame a significant number of car crashes, poor school testing scores, and the incidence of depression and anxiety to a lack of attention.

On the other hand, we can be too mindful as well. Rowland also cites recent articles that endorse mind wandering for creativity, insight, planning, stress relief, and to help us get through boring tasks without going crazy.

But what I really like about Rowland’s piece is how he puts these two sets of contradictory findings together. The key, as we find in most cases, is the middle path. But he suggests not just one middle path but two:

  1. There are some situations and contexts where mindfulness is important. There are others where mind wandering is better. For example if a task requires concentration, we can apply mindfulness techniques to help us stay in the moment, stay focused, and filter out distraction. But if a task leaves us with spare capacity, filling it up with mind wandering can be beneficial. It can improve performance on the boring task as well as add the side benefits of creativity and so on. We want to avoid mind wandering when we are using it to avoid a stressful but important task.
  2. There are some contents of wind wandering that are positive and some that are negative. As I mentioned earlier, when we are engaged in mind wandering that has positive affect (e.g. happy reminiscing) and cohesion (e.g. future planning), mind wandering is positive. But when the contents of our mind wandering has negative affect (e.g. rumination) or confusion (e.g. haphazard planning), mind wandering is negative.

He also suggests two kinds of intervention that can be effective in increasing our balance of mindfulness and mind wandering. One is metacognitive training. We can help people better recognize the situation, decide which one is better, and engage it.

The second is in our user interface design. My favorite suggestion here is to create electronic versions of bubble wrap and Play Doh (OK, I added that last one myself) and make them available in contexts that would benefit from mind wandering. In real time, we can use eye-tracking to evaluate if a user is directing an appropriate level of attention and notify them if they are off one way or the other.

I have to admit to preferring mind wandering. But I also accept the benefit of mindfulness and hope to be better at it someday. Just not today. Today I feel like letting my mind wander instead. Or am I avoiding an important activity?

Your Turn

Are you a fan of either (or both) mindfulness or mind wandering? Do you have stories or examples to share? Let us know.

Image Credit: Pruneau

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