Excerpt from “Stop Paying Attention: Zoning Out Is a Crucial Mental State,” by Carl Zimmer, Discover (June 2009):
When our minds wander, we lose touch with the outside world. We don’t actually black out, of course, but we are more likely to make mistakes, fail to encode memories, or miss a connection. Zoning out makes us particularly prone to these errors. Schooler and Smallwood, along with Merrill McSpadden of the University of British Columbia, tested the effect of zoning out by having a test group read a Sherlock Holmes mystery in which a villain used a pseudonym. As people were reading the passages discussing this fact, the researchers checked their state of attentiveness. Just 30 percent of the people who were zoning out at the key moments could give the villain’s pseudonym, while 61 percent of the people who weren’t zoning out at those moments succeeded.
These results are shocking when you stop to think about them. Each of us has a magnificent hive of billions of neurons in our head, joined to each other by trillions of connections. The human brain is arguably the most complex organ in the natural world. And yet studies on mind wandering are showing that we find it difficult to stay focused for more than a few minutes on even the easiest tasks, despite the fact that we make mistakes whenever we drift away.
The fact that both of these important brain networks become active together suggests that mind wandering is not useless mental static. Instead, Schooler proposes, mind wandering allows us to work through some important thinking. Our brains process information to reach goals, but some of those goals are immediate while others are distant. Somehow we have evolved a way to switch between handling the here and now and contemplating long-term objectives. It may be no coincidence that most of the thoughts that people have during mind wandering have to do with the future.
Even more telling is the discovery that zoning out may be the most fruitful type of mind wandering. In their fMRI study, Schooler and his colleagues found that the default network and executive control systems are even more active during zoning out than they are during the less extreme mind wandering with awareness. When we are no longer even aware that our minds are wandering, we may be able to think most deeply about the big picture.
[See also: Shinzen Young’s Focus Out strategy]