Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is your mind wandering?

I don’t know about yours, but my mind loves to wander. I'm usually jumping between my to-do list, worries, plans, memories... anywhere but where I am.

What do exercise, good conversation, and sex have in common? According to this study recently published in Science, these are the times when our minds wander the least -- the times when we are most in the present moment.

From the opening paragraph of the paper:
Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. Indeed, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation. Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right?
I like the way the authors went about answering this question: they used an iphone app to randomly contact people throughout the day and collect information on their daily thoughts, feelings, and actions. They were then able to create "an unusually large database of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions of a broad range of people as they went about their daily activities." 

They recorded people’s answers in this database Check out that website if interested -- you can sign up to start tracking your own happiness levels (I just did!).

3 interesting findings from the study:
  1. People’s minds wander frequently.
  2. People were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not.
  3. What people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing
They found that people are happiest when making love, exercising, and in conversation. Our minds tend to wander unpleasantly when we are working, sleeping, and at home on our computers. 

It seems that the ancient traditions were right: our wandering minds lead us to unhappiness. So maybe the key to happiness is figuring out how to control our minds.

That’s really the whole point of yoga: to train and discipline our minds, to keep coming back to the present moment, to practice being here now.

1 comment:

  1. it's terrific that scientific findings are confirming what meditation and yoga practitioners have always known - that it is the mind rather than external factors that affects our happiness the most.
    Maybe scientific studies such as this will help encourage more people to try meditation - to make it a little more mainstream.