Mindfulness is a buzzword today. It refers to the notion that we should strive to keep our minds fully attending to and totally aware of what’s happening and what we’re doing on a moment-to-moment basis. Search the word mindfulness on the Internet, and you’ll find a multitude of books, exercises, seminars and workshops designed to help keep you in the physical present and discourage you from letting your mind wander.
Because, mind-wandering is bad, right? It’s counterproductive when trying to accomplish a task, such as when reading a book or listening to a lecture. It turns out, however, that letting your brain go off on peregrinations of its own choosing is just as natural a state as mindfulness. According to scientists, we spend as much as 50 percent of our daily cognition on the spontaneous type, what’s known as daydreaming or mind-wandering.
So if it is so disruptive, why do we do it so often? And when our minds do wander off to faraway places, what do those destinations say about us and, perhaps, where we should actually go on vacation?
In one experiment conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers had students read the opening chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace for 45 minutes. The participants were asked to press a key whenever they caught themselves zoning out. On average, the students pushed the key 5.4 times. During the experiment, the students were also interrupted six times at random intervals to see if they were daydreaming at the time without having been aware of it. This caught, on average, a further 1.2 times. The results show that having trouble staying focused appears to be common and universal.
But far from being a waste of time, mind-wandering proves very useful for creative thought and when planning for something, such as a trip. Research has also shown that blood flow to an idling brain is only 5 to 10 percent lower than to an engaged brain. In addition, wider regions of the brain are active during idling than during engagement on a task. The areas of the brain that are active during the supposedly resting state have come to be known as the “default-mode network.”
The default-mode network mainly covers the areas of the brain that are not directly involved in perceiving the world or responding to it. One analogy is that the brain is like a small town, with people milling around, going about their business. When a big event occurs, such as a football game, people then flock to the stadium, while the rest of the town grows quiet. Yet, there are still things going on in town: the give and take of commerce, and the meandering activity of a few people in the community and at their places of work. So it is in the brain. When the mind is not trained on some event, it wanders.
There’s a good reason for that. In adapting to our complex world, we need to escape the here and now so that we can consider possible futures and mull over past mistakes. Mind-wandering, then, becomes a source of creativity; a spark of innovation.
Mindfulness urges us to stay in the present moment, moving a spotlight of attention from one part of the body to another, or intently examining the sensations of breathing. While such methods can restore a mental calm, it’s doubtful whether mindfulness, any more than mind-wandering, actually helps us concentrate on the things we want or must do.
So, when we’re in mind-wandering mode, what places do we go to in our heads? Most of us have a mental list of the places we’d like to see, and we tend to turn to our preferred destinations. And the ones we gravitate toward generally reflect how we see ourselves.
Where we dream of going on vacation says a lot about who we think we are. If you see yourself as adventurous, you may opt for sailing in Antarctica or zip-lining through the forests of Costa Rica. Do you think of yourself as cultured? Perhaps a paddling tour through the wine districts of Portugal would be your best bet. That’s because the more closely our image of our destination aligns with our self-image—what’s called “self-congruity”—the happier we’re likely to be with our choice.
It seems pretty clear that nature designed us to daydream, to escape the focus that confines us. Despite the numerous self-help sections in bookstores, we shouldn’t feel that we have to be mindful every minute of every day. So, revel in your mental escapades. It just may help you formulate where to go next in that great, big, beautiful world out there.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,