By Dr. Kevin McGrew - May 9, 2012
As summarized in prior posts, neurocognitive research suggests that the predominant gear of our minds transmission is neutral. Our mental engine is working (idling) but to those observing us, our brain is not moving—we often do not appear cognitively engaged in any complex thinking or processing.
The typical person spends up to half their time engaged in the spontaneous chasing of miscellaneous thoughts down various rabbit holes of our minds. Our thought promiscuous mind wanders here-and-there when daydreaming (“zoning out”) or becoming trapped in a cycle of negative unchecked thoughts (e.g., rumination over negative unhappy thoughts; mania; obsessions). However, the unconstrained busy or wandering mind can also produce creative insights and thoughts. An unquiet or busy mind can be good or bad depending on the demands facing the individual at any given time. More importantly, the amount of optimal mind wandering may vary for different people.
It was within this context that I found the following scientific article of interest.
Risko, E. F., Anderson, N., Sarwal, A., Engelhardt, M., & Kingstone, A. (2012). Everyday Attention: Variation in Mind Wandering and Memory in a Lecture. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(2), 234-242.
The intriguing aspect of this study is that it did not study mind wandering of the default brain network in a laboratory setting. Instead, this study investigated mind wandering in a real world setting—attending to and comprehending a teaching lecture. Most of us can recall the experience of sitting in a class or attending a lecture and finding our focus on the speaker’s words wax and wane. Often our thoughts will wander far beyond the boundaries of the classroom. However, my interpretation of the results from this study, combined with other recent research, suggests a twist—not all mind wandering for all people is detrimental during all learning tasks.
These investigators defined mind wandering as “a decoupling of attention from an external stimulus to internal thoughts.” In other words, mind wandering is unplugging the umbilical cord of focused attention from an important task and plugging it in to the spontaneous thought generation of the default brain network. In most learning contexts mind wandering has been found to have a detrimental impact on reading and listening comprehension. If one is trying to comprehend a writers or speakers words and ideas the hijacking of attention (away from the material) to the playground of spontaneous random thinking will likely interfere with learning.
While watching and listening to a video lecture the research subjects received random signals to record what they were thinking about at that particular moment. This allowed the researchers to determine the amount of mind wandering during the lecture. Not surprisingly, the study reported that spontaneous mind wandering increases the longer a lecture progresses. This is not an earth shattering finding for anyone who has listened to a long speech or lecture. The value of the study is that it confirms the same findings reported in laboratory settings (mind wandering increases the longer a person is involved in a task).
Of primary interest was the author’s discussion of possible reasons for increased mind wandering as a function of increased time involved with a task. Two different explanations are offered. First, there are likely individual differences in mind wandering. Some individuals are more prone to mind wandering and, if not equipped with self-monitoring tools to recognize when to shut down the wandering mind and focus on the important task, they will comprehend and learn less.
The second interpretation is more intriguing. It suggests mind wandering may increase with practice and increased skill in performing a task. If an individual has attended many classes, speeches or lectures, they may have acquired specialized listening comprehension skills that allow them to recognize when the immediately presented information is not critical (e.g., off-task tangential speaker comments; jokes; etc.) and, instead of wasting the precious brain resources of focused attention, a person puts their brain in neutral—and possibly some spontaneous mind wandering. Practice is believed to reduce the degree of involvement of the air traffic controller of the brain (executive control or functions), thus “freeing up” resources for mind wandering during a familiar automatic task. In this context mind wandering is not interfering with learning and, in fact, may be facilitating learning by saving the mental energy required for focused attention when the speaker’s content once again becomes more salient. Attentional control (focus) is a brain tool that can be used as tasks permit—on-demand-focus.
Attentional control can be trained by shutting down the default brain network when necessary. IM and some forms of meditation seem to do this, and it is likely that other brain fitness technologies are also working on attentional control via a focus on working memory training.
You want and need the ability to muster selective on-demand-focus. That is, it may be appropriate to engage in creative mind wandering when performing an automatic task. This can be positive either in terms of creative thought or saving attentional resources for when the task quickly shifts to require focused attention. However, if you are in an environment that places constant demands on your working memory (e.g., driving a rental car on a major freeway in a strange large city), you need to invoke your on-demand-focus and shut down the internal self-talk for sustained periods of time. Recent research suggests that those with better working memory can engage in the positive creative mind wandering when performing something that is easy and automatic, but if you have weak working memory, you may not be able to do this…or should not try to do so.
Training to improve focus or controlled attention may need different goals for different people. For individuals with strong working memory capacity, brain clock based (IM) training can increase the ability to engage in selective on-demand focus. In such individuals this training may facilitate the ability to engage in positive mind wandering when doing something automatic and simple but, when the situation quickly switches to one requiring spot-on-focus, the brain tool of controlled attentional focus can be invoked to “lock on” to the important information to deal with the task at hand. In the context of IM training, a possible strategy would be to introduce the guide sounds earlier during training if the client demonstrates readiness. Training should then begin to focus on bursts and highest in-a-row to encourage more controlled attentional focus.
For individuals with weak working memory capacity, brain-clock based controlled attentional training should likely first target on increasing the person’s ability to invoke sustained focus for longer periods of time. Over time this should improve the efficiency of their weaker working memory. For these individuals training that shuts down wind wandering at all costs may be the most important immediate goal. In the context of IM training, this suggest the strategy of gradually increasing the duration of IM training exercises to become gradually longer and longer. As the client demonstrates increased proficiency at longer durations the intensity of feedback can then be increased. By increasing the duration of IM exercises one is systematically increasing the opportunity for more mind wandering—thus providing more opportunities to learn to shut down the busy or wandering mind. Increasing emphasis on getting “bursts” is a way to encourage the patient to (at will) turn on laser beam focusing ability.
There is only one proven law in psychology—the law of individual differences. Just as people differ in intelligence, types of cognitive abilities, personality, etc., people will differ in their current working memory capacity and ability to invoked on-demand-focus. Brain clock based brain training such as IM, as well as any brain fitness technology, needs to be customized to reflect the individual differences and differential training goals of individuals.