It Pays to Be a Space Case

It Pays to Be a Space Case

Kieran Fox, a neuroscientist, says some of his colleagues see him as an “alien” because of all the time he takes off to let his mind wander.Photo Illustration by Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

It’s a feeling we all know well—you’re at a work meeting or in the middle of a book, when you realize that you have no idea what just happened. Without noticing it, your thoughts have drifted away from you. 

Like many people, I’ve found my mind wandering more than usual since March, when shelter-in-place measures destroyed what little structure I had cobbled together as a freelance writer and student. Suddenly, my tidy university office was replaced by half of a couch, my “work schedule” transformed into little more than a hypothetical idea. As I struggled to stay focused from the corner of our tiny 350-square-foot apartment, my thoughts drifted endlessly: from my work, to what to have for lunch, to whether our world was truly on the brink of collapse. 

Of course, many of these moments were stressful and uncomfortable, but others brought me a strange sense of peace. In the months since the pandemic began, I’ve found myself coming back to those musings again and again. Are our moments of distraction—the daydreams and memories, the anxieties and reflections—really such a bad thing?

For what feels like the first time in months, I’m grateful to be alone with my thoughts again.

I called up my old colleague, neuropsychologist and author Ylva Østby, to find out. “Mind wandering is the opposite of control: It’s free,” she explains from her home in Norway. “In some situations, it is important to be able to control your mind and to focus on the task at hand, but that does not mean that mind wandering is in itself a negative thing. We just don’t recognize the situations where mind wandering is useful.” 

It’s true: When it comes to tasks that demand deep focus, losing control of our thoughts can have obvious negative consequences. Studies have found that the more our minds wander, the more our reading comprehension suffers and the more mistakes we make during tasks involving sustained attention. People whose thoughts drift more often also tend to perform worse on general intelligence tests. There’s even research suggesting that we feel less happy while mind wandering than we when we’re more focused.

But, as Østby explains, distraction doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. Studies have found that mind wandering most often takes place during tasks that don’t require many mental resources—that is, when we can afford to pay less attention. Some researchers have even argued that losing focus can be helpful, offering a welcome reprieve from otherwise boring experiences. “I’ve told teachers this,” she laughs. “If your pupils are not paying attention it’s because they are not robots! They are human, and they need to let their minds wander from time to time.”

Jonny Smallwood, a psychology professor at Queen’s University, agrees. “In my opinion, there is far too much emphasis on the value of being in the here and now,” he says. “[Mind wandering is] where all of the creativity of our species comes from.” 

Psychology has often been critiqued for being overly focused on the negative aspects of our mental worlds, prioritizing understanding why we suffer, rather than what makes us thrive. Perhaps for this reason, research into the benefits of mind wandering is relatively limited. 

Still, a growing body of evidence suggests Østby and Smallwood may be on to something. These studies find that mind wandering can play an important role in planning for the future and solving challenging problems, for example. Some psychologists have even found that it can help solidify memories, much like sleep does. 

These more optimistic findings are good news for us. Researchers estimate that our minds wander for about half of our waking lives, generating about 2000 thoughts a day that are completely unrelated to the task at hand. If mind wandering really is a useless activity, that would leave us with about 50,000,000 wasted thoughts over the course of a lifetime.

“[Mind wandering is a] fundamental aspect of how we think,” says Smallwood. “People do this all the time and are permanently using it to think about the future, or other people in their lives, or goals they haven’t completed.” That’s why he, like Østby, takes a different view on mind wandering—one that sees it as an activity that is neither inherently good or bad, but dependent on the task at hand. “It’s critical, like many of the things that make our species unique,” Smallwood says.

Create space for some “mindful” mind wandering every day.

This same idea has fuelled much of Kieran Fox’s research. A neuroscientist and medical student at Stanford University, he’s fascinated by the relationship between mind wandering and creativity. Much of his work has centered on the idea that losing control of our thoughts is not only normal, but desirable. 

“People mind wander all over the world and in all kinds of different cultures,” Fox tells me over Zoom. “Is this just because we’re in this distraction-ridden society…Or is this actually something that the brain does naturally? I think the latter view is definitely the case.” 

Fox’s work suggests that people fall on a sort of spectrum when it comes to mind wandering. While some will tend to fall into harmful, repetitive thought patterns when their minds are at rest, others will produce more helpful musings. Still, Fox explains that, by and large, when our minds wander, they generate thoughts that are relevant and useful—at least to ourselves. We reflect on our actions from the hours gone by and ask questions about the days ahead. We think about our families and loved ones, our goals and personal challenges. And sometimes—if we’re lucky—we come up with solutions that are truly original. “If you want to do anything different in your life,” says Fox, “you need to create space for ideas.”

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Studies that connect mind wandering with creativity often center on the idea of the incubation period. The concept is simple: by taking a break from a difficult problem, we can give our minds time to work through our challenges unconsciously—to let our ideas “incubate”—while we focus on other things. When we finally return to the problem again, we often find that the solution has suddenly become obvious.

Importantly, though, these incubation periods seem to be most helpful when they allow our thoughts to drift. Some of Smallwood’s work, for example, has found that doing an undemanding task—that is, one likely to provoke mind wandering—while taking a break from a problem can help people generate more creative solutions than filling that time with a more mentally engaging activity. 

“It doesn’t even have to be that specific,” Fox says, when I ask him what these incubation periods can look like. “I’m working on a book right now and I’ve been doing the exact same thing every day: Studying and reading all morning, trying to write a bit, and then taking long, long walks.” With time to let the mind process what he’s read earlier, solutions come easier than expected: “I bring up what I was thinking about—set the stage—and then just start walking,” he says. Eventually, the solution recombines on its own. “It just bubbles up.” 

Indeed, many of history’s most revered artists and inventors had daily routines that incorporated periods of mental rest. Yoko Ono lit matches when stressed, watching the flames slowly burn into darkness. Frida Kahlo spent hours in her garden, drawing inspiration from the bright plants around her. James Joyce lay in bed “smothered in his own thoughts” for a full hour each morning, letting ideas come and go. Charles Darwin would declare at noon, “I’ve done a good day’s work,” and spend the rest of the day taking long walks, napping, and answering letters.

Fox, too, recommends creating space for some “mindful” mind wandering every day. “In our world right now, the idea of having dedicated space to think and unwind mentally is completely unacceptable,” he says. “But if you start reading the sort of reports in the diaries of these creative people, they all say the same thing: Each day, prepare the field and plant seeds—study and think—but then let [the solution] come on its own. You never know when or where those seeds are going to grow.”

Fox says some of his colleagues see him as an “alien” because of all the time he takes off to let his mind wander. In addition to his long walks, he meditates most mornings and leaves time to reflect on his thoughts before falling asleep each night. But while not every idea that arises during these moments is useful, Fox isn’t worried about the lost time. “You can have tens of thousands or millions of thoughts, and it doesn’t matter if most of them are stillborn…if one or two pay off,” he shrugs.

As our interview comes to an end, I find myself lingering longer than usual. I draw out our conversation with small talk about medical school, Stanford, California weather—tidbits from Fox’s life that distract me, just briefly, from my own. After I finally click “Leave Meeting,” I sit back, close my eyes, and let my mind drift. For what feels like the first time in months, I’m grateful to be alone with my thoughts again.

Alice Fleerackers is a freelance writer and a doctoral student at Simon Fraser University, where she studies health and science communication. Find her on Twitter @FleerackersA.

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