Science unveils the wandering mind

The mind tends to wander, and not always for the worse.

The mind tends to wander, and not always for the worse. A study published this August in Psychological Science uncovers clues that the human brain is a skilled wanderer capable of sudden insights, but that inattentive space-outs rarely do much good.

The creative wandering mind
Study participants were asked to perform Unusual Use Tasks (UUT), which required them to determine uses for uncommon items. Each of four groups was then asked to perform different tasks ranging from "undemanding" to "demanding" before taking the UUT test again. Participants who had just performed undemanding tasks reported more mind wandering, but also scored higher on the UUT test. Results suggest that "spacing out" could help unlock stuck neural pathways and improve creative thinking.

Underlying mind wandering is working memory, which determines how many units of information can be held actively at a given time. Another study published in Psychological Science last April shows that those with higher working memories are more likely to wander. Researchers concluded that working memory is capable of determining where our attention is and potentially why, and that greater working memory capacities could lead some minds to wander as they look for more things to keep themselves busy.

In many cases, mind wandering results from anxiety or depression, according to the Mayo Clinic. In these cases, patients seeking medicinal therapies may want to buy Paxil or buy Effexor. Other treatments are available for a range of health conditions from Canadian online pharmacies.

"What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren't very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing," said Jonathan Smallwood of the Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science.

Depression and attention
A study performed last year by the University of Miami showed that depression can have a severe impact on attention, and those suffering from the condition often become stuck on bad thoughts due to an inability to move their attention away.

"They basically get stuck in a mindset where they relive what happened to them over and over again," said co-author Jutta Joormann, PhD. Even after reminding themselves of the reasons why they should stop thinking about it, Joormann added that it can be difficult for those with traumatic experiences to put them aside.

To test a possible relationship between working memory and depression, Joormann and co-authors Sara Levens and Ian H. Gotlib from Stanford University created a memory test involving backwards order and negative and positive words.

Results showed that depressive individuals took longer to re-order words regardless of type, and also had particular difficulty with negative words such as "sadness" and "death." In short, their working memories were not functioning at full capacity. Further investigation showed that participants with the most difficulty were those dealing with troubling memories that were resurfacing during testing, suggesting that PTSD victims may be at particular risk for working memory problems.