In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, it’s hard to stay focused. Unfortunately for college students, the amount of schoolwork just before the holiday break seems to increase proportionally to our level of distraction.
The holidays inspire a special kind of distraction. We are not merely shopping online or scrolling through endless Facebook photos; rather, our minds wander, or “mind-wander.” More than simply losing focus, “mind-wandering” refers to being mentally absent— one’s mind is literally elsewhere. You might physically be sitting in Lauinger Library writing a paper on Russian sumptuary laws in the 18th century (my condolences should this essay be real), but mentally you are in your kitchen watching an apple pie in the oven turn golden brown.
From a neurological perspective, “mind-wandering” is something of a hybrid between sleep-dreaming and conscious wakefulness. Recent research indicates that task-unrelated thought derives from a change in the balance of two neural networks: the default and executive networks. Typically, the two act in opposition to each other. The default reflects internal thoughts, and the executive network handles demanding mental activity. However when we daydream, the two appear to work in collaboration.
Boredom does a great job at initiating our daydreams — in fact, the monotony of boredom actually induces the unique brain state of mind-wandering that works to break the cycle. In a society that places so much value in productivity, daydreaming has a pretty poor reputation. It is often associated with procrastination and inefficiency — Freud called it “infantile.”
But, we are naturally curious and inventive creatures. Evolutionarily, having a brain that accommodates creativity is essential to adapting and surviving over time. It is no wonder then, that “mind-wandering” fosters creative thought since thinking about things beyond our surroundings opens up endless opportunities for ingenuity.
Some of the greatest moments of genius in history all stemmed from flashes of insight during periods of idleness — Einstein purportedly was working in a German patent office when he began thinking about relativity; Newton was inspired to formulate his theory of gravity by falling apples, according to legend; Descartes allegedly envisioned the Cartesian coordinate system while watching a fly crawl on a ceiling.
Mind-wandering is incredibly common: According to a 2010 Harvard University study, people spend 46.9 percent of their time thinking about what isn’t going on around them. If it is such a frequent phenomenon, why don’t we have more Einsteins, Newtons and Descartes’s today?
Ultimately, the answer likely goes back to the executive network’s fundamental role in “mind-wandering.” Pure “mind-wandering” might be beneficial to reach a moment of insight, but without a touch of meta-awareness, that insight will be useless — at some point after the apple hit his head, Newton had to connect the idea of gravity with its implications.
That touch, however, is virtually impossible to quantify: Understanding how to balance the mindless with the mindful is incredibly tricky — there is a very fine line between too little and too much metacognition.
On the one hand, attention and awareness are distinct neural processes. Simply looking at a page doesn’t mean that one has an understanding of the words. This awareness is often essential not only to “Aha!” moments, but also to our daily lives — mental imagery is crucial for basic tasks like memory and planning.
On the other hand, excessive strenuous mental activity has been linked to numerous mental disorders, like depression and schizophrenia. University of Nottingham researchers recently showed that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder patients exhibit faulty “off-switches” for their default networks, generating the symptomatic inability to focus, regardless of the task at hand. Moreover, the Harvard study also found increased “mind-wandering” to be correlated with increased unhappiness, across a wide variety of demographics.
As thoughts turn from Tennyson to turkeys, students should strive to establish when “mind-wandering” is most appropriate. Our society, too, should reevaluate the value of rote productivity and appreciate mind-wandering’s creative benefits. Despite the inherent difficulty, we need to discriminate between the two sides of awareness and reach a healthy balance between too little and too much. We need to be better daydreamers.
Caitlin Gilbert is a junior in the College. THE CORTEXT appears every other Tuesday.