Wandering Minds Are Due to Working Memory Capacity

You're going about your business, when all of the sudden your mind wanders ... what just happened? Studies have shown that our minds wander half the time we're doing something.

A new study suggests the reason behind wandering minds: it's all about your working memory capacity.

The researchers asked volunteers to perform one of two simple tasks -- either pressing a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or simply tapping in time with one's breath -- and compared people's propensity to drift off.

"We intentionally use tasks that will never use all of their attention," Smallwood explains, "and then we ask, how do people use their idle resources?"

Throughout the tasks, the researchers checked in periodically with the participants to ask if their minds were on task or wandering. At the end, they measured each participant's working memory capacity, scored by their ability to remember a series of letters given to them interspersed with easy math questions.

In both tasks, there was a clear correlation. "People with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these simple tasks," says Levinson, though their performance on the test was not compromised.

The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.

"What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren't very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing," Smallwood says.

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I can see that; but it's not without its cons.

A study last year concluded that people are become more distracted and younger people experience an "intruding thought" about every 8 seconds. Whereas older people who did not grow-up with all the bells and whistles of the modern world are far less likely to have an intruding thought. Consequently older people are demonstrably better at staying focused on a task.

So I would say there are maybe two sides to this (pro/con). The pro is you exercise working memory and are capable of retaining more information. The con is you lose the ability to stay focused.
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