Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes sells 30 minutes Patented Daydream Charms to Hogwarts students so that they don’t have to suffer unprofitable boredom listening to school lectures. The daydream takes them to another level of consciousness completely aloof from the surroundings. But the side-effects will include vacant expressions and minor drooling. This is a fantasy in the surreal world of Harry Potter.
In our dimension of reality, the Patented Daydream Charms may not be an actuality but, the daydreams are. Humans don’t need any charms or amulets to experience it. This natural phenomenon is called Mind Wandering.
Illustration by Nagma Khan
Haven’t you ever found yourself lost while attending a lecture in a classroom? How embarrassing it has been when the professor suddenly asks something and you were unable to respond, lost in your own thoughts. It would even get more embarrassing if you were unable to recall the time since your mind got distracted.
Mind wandering is experienced very frequently. It occurs even in those situations where it is risky to lose one’s attention, such as driving. When the mind wanders, an individual’s attention drifts from the current thought (usually an external task) to inner thoughts and images that are unrelated to the present situation. The thoughts that occur during mind wandering are often known to reflect either the past experiences or future contemplation.
During mind wandering one’s thoughts usually, border between conscious and pre-conscious levels.
- Conscious Level consists of those thoughts, feelings, and perceptions with which one is fully aware at the present moment.
- Pre-conscious Level contains those thoughts and feelings about which one is not aware of at the present moment but can easily retrieve them with some effort.
Illustration by Nagma Khan
Mind Wandering happens to people of all ages. Research says that people tend to spend somewhere between 25%-50% of their waking hours engaged in thoughts that are unrelated to here and now. (Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010).
Although mind wandering may distract one’s mind, or make them feel lost, it is not always bad to let it happen. The content of the thoughts determines whether it has a positive or negative effect in daily life.
For instance, thinking about how your meeting may go or planning a holiday may help you plan for future events more smoothly. But at the same time thinking about past failures or how things could have gone the other way are less likely to be helpful, and may, in fact, exacerbate states of worry or unhappiness leading to stress. Thus mind wandering has both costs and benefits.
Mind Wandering may benefit by:
- Allowing one to focus on the future and reflect on the past. Thus, consciously allowing one to connect past and future self together.
- Providing creative inspiration and help produce novel solutions to various problems.
- Consolidating self-memories (Smallwood et al., 2011) and linking to a style of long-term decision making characterized by patients rather than impulsiveness (Smallwood et, 2013).
- Helping one to de-stress themselves. When stuck in the stressful situation, one should let their mind wander. Living in the fantasy world (of course with certain limits) may help to overcome the stress.
Although mind-wandering helps in enhancing creativity, planning, and organization, it may be unpleasant for individuals who experience it and is disruptive to the task at hand.
Some of the Detriments of mind-wandering may include:
- It may interfere with and disrupt the on-going task performance and may reduce external vigilance (McVay and Kane, 2009).
- It can also be a marker for certain psychiatric problems such as Dysphoria (a state of unease or dissatisfaction). Smallwood, O’Connor, and Heim (2005) suggested that when the ruminative style of thinking is combined with negative mood, it may strengthen the association between mind-wandering and #dysphoria.
- Moreover, it has been suggested that mind wandering often accompanies an unhappy mood as thinking about the past enhances adverse emotions especially if the past has negative connotations. Thus mind wandering may have maladaptive consequences for health and may impact psychological well-being. There has been substantial evidence suggesting that people who experience more mind-wandering suffer more from increased depressive symptomology (Smallwood et al 2007) and report less life satisfaction (Mar et al., 2012).
In order to reduce the detrimental effects of mind wandering the following techniques can be taken into account:
- ‘Meditation’ is one of the obvious technique. It helps one to enhance concentration abilities which allows one to focus more on the current task or activity.
- ‘Mindfulness in action techniques’ is another way to bring mindfulness into the activities of everyday life. These techniques are especially good for those who have very low impulse control and distress tolerance. For instance, according to Linehan (2003), one technique could be focusing awareness on an aspect of physical habit which was previously outside one’s conscious awareness. Example:
- Noticing how tight you hold the steering wheel while driving.
- Being aware of what happens to your breathing or voice tone in an argument.
- Killingsworth, M. A. & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science Volume 330, 932–932.
- Mooneyham, B.W., & Schooler, J.W. (2013).The costs and benefits of mind-wandering: A review, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume 67, 1, 11–18.
- Smallwood, J., O’Connor, R. C., & Heim, D. (2005). Rumination, dysphoria and subjective experience, Imagination, cognition and personality, Volume 24(4), 355-367.
- Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J.W. (2015). The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness, Annual Review, Volume 66, 487-518.
- Smallwood, J., and Hanna, J.A., (2013). Not all minds that wander are lost: the importance of a balanced perspective on the mind-wandering state, Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 4.