Try this: clear your mind. Think of absolutely nothing. Take the next minute or so to try it; we’ll wait. Done? Great. What went through your head? If it was something like “Why is this article telling me what to do? Don’t forget to swing by the grocery store later. I’m hungry. Did the Spice Girls ever have a ‘Smarty’ Spice?” then good news: you’re completely normal. Mind-wandering is your brain’s default mode. That doesn’t mean you need to accept it, though — learning to focus your mind has a lot of benefits.
When we say mind-wandering is the brain’s default mode, that’s not a metaphor. The part of the brain that starts its engines the minute you stop trying to think is called the default mode network, or just the default network. The discovery of this network happened by accident: neuroscientists in the mid-20th century noticed that brain activity in certain areas spiked when their subjects were asked to rest, even though that rest was included as the scientific control for experiments looking into other brain regions. The brain was supposed to be quiet, but for some reason, it started chattering.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when someone actually looked into this odd activity spike. The Swedish brain physiologist David Ingvar took scans of the brain’s blood flow during rest and noticed that this spike happened in specific areas, most noticeably in the frontal lobe — the center of memory, learning, and cognition. In the early 2000s, a group of researchers used more advanced imaging to identify the responsible regions even more specifically and named this web of brain areas the “default mode network.”
In essence, the default mode network makes up the parts of the brain that take a break when we’re paying attention, but jump into action when we’re not focusing on anything. It’s what leads you to daydream about the future, obsess over your fears, and reminisce about the past. It’s the jingle that pops in your head and the random fact you suddenly remember. In fact, memory is a big one: a 2012 study suggests that greater mind wandering is associated with a higher capacity for working (short-term) memory.
A wandering mind is perfectly, utterly normal. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.
Studies have shown that wandering minds aren’t as happy as focused minds, but which direction that goes is in question. A 2010 study in the journal Science found that mind wandering leads to negative moods, but not the opposite; and a 2017 study found that fantasizing about the future specifically can lead to depressive symptoms over time. Other studies, however, found that the opposite is true: a bad mood leads to a wandering mind, not vice versa. If the former is true, it could mean mind wandering is making you miserable; if the latter is true, it could mean that it’s just a way to cope when you’re feeling blue.
Of course, there are other, more obvious drawbacks to a wandering mind. When you’re not focused, your thinking suffers: your reading comprehension, memory, and overall cognitive control decrease. When you need to think creatively, daydreaming can be a powerful tool, but when you need to get down to business, focus is best.
So how do you sharpen your focus? That’s where meditation comes in. For a 2012 study, neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp and her team had people sit in an MRI brain scanner while they performed “focused attention meditation” — the kind where you focus your attention on one thing, like the sensation of breathing — and had them push a button every time they noticed their minds wandering. The scans showed that, sure enough, the brain’s default mode network activated during mind wandering. But when the meditators noticed it, it only took 12 seconds for them to redirect their attention and let the attention-focused executive brain network take over. Experienced meditators did this even more quickly.
“This might explain how it feels easier to ‘drop’ thoughts as you become more experienced in meditation — and thus better able to focus,” Hasenkamp writes in Greater Good Magazine. “Thoughts become less sticky because your brain gets re-wired to be better at recognizing and disengaging from mind-wandering.” This makes sense: meditation makes you practice focusing your attention, and practice makes perfect. The next time your mind wanders, realize that it’s just your brain’s default. Then redirect your attention to the task at hand.
Check out my related post: Is your attitude worth catching?