Mind Wandering, or Getting your Einstein On
Does your mind tend to wander? Most people believe that their minds wander about 10% of the time. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara put that figure at more like 30%. When engaged in well-rehearsed tasks like driving a car on a wide-open highway, it’s estimated that mind wandering can be as high as 70%.
In her book How to Get People to Do Stuff, behavioral psychologist Susan Weinschenk makes the important distinction between mind wandering and daydreaming.
According to Weinschenk, daydreaming involves an aspect of fantasy, like imagining you’ve been asked to star in the next Hunger Games flick opposite Jennifer Lawrence, or you’ve just won the lottery.
Mind wandering occurs when your subconscious brain is engaged in a habituated activity, like driving, and at the same time you’re thinking about some other task or wrestling with some other problem.
Doing one thing while your brain focuses on something else might sound an awful lot like multi-tasking. However, the key to multitasking is performing multiple simultaneous conscious activities. In fact, scientists haven’t definitively proven true multitasking even exists. Humans seem to lack the cognitive firepower to pull off multiple independent-thinking operations at the same time.
What feels like multitasking is actually the brain flipping back and forth between separate mental processes, but because of the speed of the flipping, you have the illusion of synchronicity. Psychologists call this “task switching.” It helps to explain a common downside to this behavior, what’s sometimes called the 50/50 rule: when you try to do two things at once, both tasks tend to take 50% longer and involve 50% more mistakes.
So mind wandering is not multitasking or daydreaming. Mind wandering, according to researchers at UC Santa Barbara, is tied to creativity. Weinschenk notes that the ability to perform a rote task while mind wandering and, more specifically, to switch on this mental meandering at will is “the hallmark of the most creative people.”
There are numerous stories of great thinkers like Nicola Tesla and Albert Einstein’s daydreaming or “thought experiments” helping to fuel some of the greatest achievements of modern time. Weinschenk would probably be quick to point out that these geniuses were not mere daydreamers, but accomplished mind wanderers.
I suppose that’s a blow to all of us daydreamers who up until now could take solace in our former moony-eyed patron saints, Tesla and Einstein. I, for one, vow to pay more attention to my own mind wandering in the future.
Anyway, I’ll get right on that after I finish winning the lottery…