Have you ever taken a wrong turn with your car while deep in thoughts; or searched for your mobile phone and, a few moments later, realized you were actually holding it in your hand; or caught yourself having no clue on the topic of the conversation you’ve just had? In other words, have you ever felt, as you were not fully living through what you are doing? If you have, then do not panic. What has happened to you is that your mind has wandered away from what you were doing in those moments- a natural occurrence that happens to most people sometimes.
Probably you are asking yourself what the so-called mind wandering is…
We call it mind wandering when thoughts unrelated to the current task and dissociated from current sensory information take place in our mind. Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience have identified that human brain has a set of regions that show higher activity during performance of effortless cognitive tasks, which they consider responsible for the wandering mind phenomenon. The human brain has an incredible ability to automatize activities that have been learned and become natural to the person performing them. This means that when we perform a well-known and frequently repeated activity, our brain does not need to be operating full steam in relation with this activity and, consequently, it can deviate part of its attention to other activities. This brain function allows people to multitask and only proves the incredible learning ability of the brain. Notwithstanding it also makes possible the brain wandering which seems to cause pretty much distress in our lives. In particular, a study conducted by M. Killingsworth and D. Gilbert (Science 330, 932, 2010) revealed that people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were concentrated on their present activity, and there is more to it: this was true for all kind of thoughts: unpleasant, neutral and (even) pleasant ones.
By now, you might be telling yourself: All right then, now I know that my mind wanders but… What can I do about it, if there is anything that can be done?
As you would have already noticed- based on the above- wandering is the mind’s intrinsic quality, which makes it hard to get rid of it. What you can do about it though, is to learn to bring your mind’s attention back to whatever activity you are doing at a given moment, every time your mind wanders. For that you shall follow these steps a) become aware of the fact that your mind wanders; b) watch out for the moments when it does it; c) take notice of the wandering- where the mind goes and what it sees; d) bring the mind’s focus of attention back to the present moment.
Remember that even the most mindful people cannot pretend to free their minds entirely from wandering. What being mindful does is to help people to become more aware of one’s own unconscious processes and act upon them. In other words, it helps us to catch ourselves when functioning in automatic pilot mode and to redirect the attention to the present moment. Therefore, if you have initiated yourself in mindfulness practice and still can find your mind wandering repeatedly, do not be harsh on yourself, congratulate yourself for noticing it instead.