in praise of mindlessness

There was always one child in the classroom, who would habitually stare out of the window, who never knew what page they were meant to be reading, or what question they were being asked. Physically they were in the class, but mentally they were somewhere else. I confess I was that child, dreamily staring out of the window, and oblivious to teacher’s instructions, which were reduced to a distant drone floating just outside of my awareness. I was that child whose mind was asked to rejoin the rest of the class by an exasperated teacher. If mind wandering had been part of the curriculum I would have been a straight A student. In today’s mindfulness focused culture, it could be said that I was not present. Being present is the new black.

Being present is integral to mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Both meditation and mindfulness are practices that share the aims of “cultivating a continuity of awareness in all activities of daily living.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). All activities? That seems like an ancient curse rather than a positive aspiration. Do I really want to be fully aware while crushed between commuters on a stuffy tube carriage? Fully present in a death by powerpoint meeting, particularly when the biscuits have been eaten, and the coffee has gone cold? In all honesty, no.

There has been a tsunami of research extolling the benefits of mindfulness. Research on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programmes have shown that mindfulness practice can reduce anxiety and depresssion (e.g. Hoffman et al, 2010), chronic pain (Cherkin et al, 2016), as well as improve the quality of life of healthy individuals (Khoury et al., 2015), and increase in psychological well-being (Carmody & Baer, 2008).

It’s easy to understand why mindfulness has become the new black. Mindfulness practice can be hugely beneficial, but here’s the thing, so can mind wandering.

According to Schooler et al’s (2014) definition “Mind-wandering is a common everyday experience in which attention becomes disengaged from the immediate external environment and focused on internal trains of thought.” While we may be more aware that mind wandering occurs during the more uninteresting moments of our day, in fact we have a propensity to let our minds wander for surprisingly long periods of time. Humans spend almost half of the day engaged in the experience of mind wandering (Klinger & Cox, 1987-1988).

Mind wandering is as vital for our survival, as being present. It’s where problem solving happens and plans evolve, where eureka moments occur, where random ideas float past until we arrive at a random idea that holds the solution or answer or revelation we’ve been looking for.  Of course, mind wandering also helps to alleviate the boredom if you’re stuck in traffic, or at the dentist’s, unless you are the dentist. Which is the main point. If you are indeed the dentist, you need to be present, but if you are the patient in the chair, zoning out is a good way to alleviate the stress and pain, let alone the social pressure of staring into someone else’s eyes for a long period of time, particularly someone who is causing you prolonged discomfort. At times it is imperative to be mentally elsewhere.

According to researchers, the function of mind-wandering is to enable goal-directed planning in relation to personal concerns (Baird et al., 2011). Specifically, mind wandering helps us to select a course of action, and prepare for upcoming events (Schacter et al., 2007a; Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007; Suddendorf, Addis & Corballis, 2009).

Research has also revealed that mind wandering plays a major role in facilitating creative insight and problem solving (Baird et al, 2012). Those of us who were told off for our minds sailing beyond the confines of the classroom, may feel vindicated by studies which found that individuals who mind wander more frequently in their daily lives, may also be more creative in general and that a tendency toward mind wandering increases creativity (Baird et al., 2012; Baas, 2015).

By contrast, researchers found that focused deliberation can block creativity, whereas distraction can enhance creativity (Dijksterhuis & Meurs, 2006). Nevertheless, before a present mind develops the reputation of the mortal enemy of creativity, focused deliberation can be helpful, but the choice between a focused or a wandering mind, it seems, depends on the type of creative task. Although a focused mind can be detrimental to performance on a creative task which requires insight, it can benefit a creative task which requires a conscious and analytic approach (Zedelius & Schooler, 2015). The researchers conclude “both our stereotypes of creative individuals as highly focused individuals and as chaotic, scattered minds seem to have merit, but they speak to different creative processes”(p.12).

As anyone knows who is faced with a task which requires focus, will be aware that mind wandering may not always be helpful. Mind wandering can be disruptive to the goals of the moment, a lack of concentration can cause errors, and mind wandering involving negative content can prolong the negative mood (see Smallwood & Andrews-Hanna, 2013).

But, in the rush to take up mindful practice with the ardour of a paid intern, we may risk depriving ourselves of the trippy random association mind wandering that throws up the inspiration, the solutions, and the high five moments that make our lives easier, and at times, more interesting. Rather than an either or situation, it’s a question of knowing what we need from our minds. For those who are aiming to develop mindfulness, going for a run or walking the dog is a great way to practise being present. It can take us away from the energy-zapping computer screen. Instead of other people’s instagram posts, if we’re lucky to be somewhere leafy, we can notice the saturation of colour of the plants and trees around us. It can bring us back from mental loops which can confine our minds. But… on the other hand, walking the dog, going for a run, are precisely the times when ideas and the eureka moments can also occur.

We need to consider why we need to be present, and what we can gain from being mindful or being mindless. While, there are many benefits to a daily mindfulness practice, we shouldn’t lose sight of the benefits and sheer pleasure of mind wandering.

Baas, M. (2015). Daydreaming Frequency Predicts Creativity Over and Beyond Flexibility and Persistence, Preliminary Data. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam.
Baird, B., Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2011). Back to the future: Autobiographical planning and the functionality of mind-wandering. Consciousness and Cognition, 20: 1604 –1611.
Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J.W.Y., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J.W. (2012). Inspired by distraction mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science, 23(10): 1117-22.
Carmody, J. & Baer, R. A. (2008). Relationship between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31 (1): 23-33.
Cherkin, D. C.,  Sherman, K. J.,  Balderson, B. H., Cook, A. J., Anderson, M. L., Hawkes, R. J., Hansen, K. E., &  Turner, J. A. (2016). Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction vs cognitive behavioral therapy or usual care on back pain and functional limitations in adults with chronic low back pain. Journal of the American Medical Association, 315 (12): 1240-1249.
Dijksterhuis, A. & Meurs, T. (2006) Where creativity resides: The generative power of unconscious thought. Conscious Cognition, 15, 1: 135-146.
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Klinger, E., & Cox, W. M. (1987–1988). Dimensions of thought flow in everyday life. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 7 (2): 105–128.
Schacter, D. L., Addis, D. R., & Buckner, R. L. (2007a). The prospective brain: Remembering the past to imaging the future. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8: 657–661.
Schooler, J. W., Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Baird, B. Mooneyham, B. W., Zedelius, C., & Broadway, J. M. (2014 ). The middle Way: Finding the balance between mindfulness and mind-wandering. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 60. 1-33.
Smallwood, J.S., & Andrews-Hanna, J.R. (2013). Not all minds that wander are lost: The importance of a balanced perspective on the mind-wandering state. Frontiers in Psychology: Special Issue on Mind-Wandering, 4 article 441: 1-6.
Suddendorf, T. & Corballis, M. C. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel and is it unique to humans? Behavioral Brain Science, 30 (3): 299-313; discussion 313-51.
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Zedelius, C. M. & Schooler, J.W. (2015). Mind wandering “Ahas” versus mindful reasoning: alternative routes to creative solutions. Frontiers in  Psychology, 6: 834, 1-13.

Writing and illustration: Louise Gilbert