It's ok to let your mind wander — it's where it goes that makes the difference, science says

How you can promote more positive daydreaming.

How you can promote more positive daydreaming.

In a productivity-obsessed world, mind-wandering has a bad reputation. The ideal is: focus like a laser beam, blasting to-dos off of your list. Yet, according to psychologists, the average human mind slips the leash of our intentions and spends 30%-70% of its time off-task. It's as though the mind has a mind of its own. That is why there is such a massive market for books, seminars, and products that promise to help us sharpen and sustain our focus, to remain present with the task at hand. Helpful authors offer advice on how to tame the forces, like digital messaging and multitasking which distract us from whatever it is we are trying to do, and to put our attention under tighter control.

But is this really the right strategy? Is mind wandering the enemy? Julie Ji, a psychologist at the University of Western Australia, says that it isn't quite so simple. While a wandering mind can make it more difficult to get things done in the short term, turning our brain loose every now and again also has its benefits. There are good reasons why mind-wandering is so common.

Ji's research focuses on the relationship between the way we think and mental health. According to her, we should not be worried that our mind wanders. But how it wanders matters quite a lot, particularly when we are thinking about the future. That's why I asked Dr  Ji to explain what mind-wandering is, what we can learn from our meandering mind, and how we can use this knowledge to better understand and promote our mental wellness.

Mind-wandering is basically defined as the mind being off-task, so it's no wonder it seems like a drag on productivity. In a review of the research on mind-wandering, Jonathan Schooler argues that mind-wandering is associated with lower working memory and sustained attention. However, this is not to say that it's useless. Scientists now believe that when our mind wanders, it can actually do useful and important things. Perhaps the most obvious upside is that it can relieve boredom, and put us in a better mood when our mind wanders into happy territory. Researchers have also found a relationship between creative thinking and mind wandering. In many situations, minds that wander more are better at creative thought than those that maintain more unerring focus.

Research also indicates that one of the most important functions of the wandering mind is to redirect our consciousness to unresolved problems or upcoming goals when it's not needed by present demands. That is, when your mind is not completely engaged in the present, it doesn't mean it's not doing anything. It may be working on upcoming challenges or just directing your attention where it is actually needed, like an unresolved issue. For example, if you are planning a dinner party, you will likely imagine who you will invite, what the table will look like, and what you will serve. As your mind plays through these scenarios like movie clips, it might remind you of everything you need to do to make it happen. According to Brian Levine from McGill University, most of the possible events we imagine in our future actually do end up happening, so the time spent envisioning them may be well-spent.

Because of this planning function, most of our mind-wandering is about the future. And, says Ji, humans are generally optimistic about the future. This positive bias helps us to survive and thrive because it motivates us to go out and do things in the world despite inherent uncertainty and risk. In one study, Ji and her team found that, even when experiencing clinical depression, those who are able to imagine future events having positive outcomes tended to become more hopeful about the future quicker. To continue our dinner party example, when we imagine our friends and family having a great time and imagine the smells coming out of the kitchen, it motivates us to put in the effort to get it all together.

Depression, unsurprisingly, is linked to a greater tendency to have negative thoughts about the future. However, negative future-thinking is not necessarily a bad thing. Imagining negative outcomes can produce emotions that might motivate us to avoid certain situations, and this can be helpful. In many cases we should avoid certain situations or at least find ways to overcome the obstacles that block our way. E.g. if every time you picture your dinner party, you imagine your brother yelling at your crying best friend while the lasagne burns in the oven, maybe you should make some changes to the guestlist and menu.

Therefore, Ji doesn't think that banishing all negative future-thoughts is a good idea, nor is unbridled optimism about the future. It's all about the relative balance between the positive and negative. In a study published in Psychological Research this August, Ji and her team found that depression symptoms were associated with reductions in positive bias when it came to future-oriented mental imagery during mind-wandering. In other words, when the depressed mind imagines the possible future, it loses the rose-tinted lenses through which the healthy minds see the future.

What can we do about this? While research is ongoing, Ji mentioned three things that we can do to promote healthy mind-wandering.

  1. Be mindful of how your mind wanders: pay attention to where your mind heads when it goes off task. Even when your mind is on the future, it is likely to be oriented by present concerns and problems. If you keep going to the same place, it may be time to do something about it. But also, it would be helpful to notice if your imaginings are primarily positive or negative, since this may signal changes in your emotional wellbeing and have wider implications for your mental health.
  2. Cultivate your imagination to picture positive experiences in your future: there are two points here. First, it is specifically our imagination and not our verbal thinking that is most closely linked to our emotions. In other words, it's not enough to tell yourself everything is going to be ok; you have to show yourself. Picture it in as much concrete and sensory detail as possible. The idea of positive visualizations of the future has long been used by athletes to improve their performances, and Ji's research suggests that there are also sound mental health reason to do this. When we practice positive imagination consciously, it makes it more likely that we will head there when our mind wanders.
  3. Put up positive signposts: research shows that how our mind wanders is influenced by environmental cues. For example, right-pointing arrows tend to orient our mind-wandering towards the future, and left-pointing arrows tend to orient it towards the past. In her latest study, not yet published, Dr Ji also found that most positive thoughts occurred when task-unrelated positive words were presented (as opposed to negative or neutral words). Therefore, it is possible that surrounding yourself with cues that are related to positive emotions for you can promote more positive mind-wandering.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.