A Wandering Mind Is Not Always Unhappy
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | May 12, 2023
In 2010 a couple of Harvard psychologists published a study called “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind” which helped shore up the idea that mindfulness promotes happiness. But it’s also been trotted out to demonize mind wandering and it’s neurobiological correlate, the default mode network (DMN).
I’ve seen the DMN referred to as the “Demon of ADHD”, “The monkey mind”, and even “The seat of angst.”
The DMN is blamed for everything from negative self-talk and poor productivity to addiction and bipolar disorder. It’s dismissed as anxious, ruminative, and distracting. It steers us off course from the present moment and gets in the way of our success and fulfillment.
Back in 2010, neuroscientists thought the DMN was antagonistic to the attention networks. The idea was that if your attention networks are fired up, then you are focused, and happy, and your DMN has shut down – which is good.
But, like everything in neuroscience, it’s not that simple.
Turns out the DMN does more than whine and pine – it’s also the network of creativity, synthetic thinking, and perhaps even intuition and it’s not entirely antagonistic to attention networks, it also works in concert with them, depending on the task. Basically, the DMN is not inherently negative.
And, just intuitively, trying to focus ALL the time, to relentlessly stay on task, to be 100% productive is…well…exhausting.
Hyperfocus drains energy. It’s not optimal, despite the preaching of our overly caffeinated culture.
Rather than being the ultimate path to happiness, extreme focus can actually end up decreasing our capacity for self-regulation, impulse control, and decision making.
The reality is that human beings are built to toggle between focused and unfocused, doing and being, attending and spacing out – it’s how the brain is meant to operate. We need to focus, and then take a rest and let things sink in and percolate. Einstein said, “I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me.”
Meditation is often suggested as a practice that can increase focus and attention – and that’s accurate, but that’s not all it does.
Have you ever noticed that when you sit and meditate for long enough you start to space out for a while and “download” all sorts of ideas (like ideas about blogs you wanna write 😁, or problems that need attending – solutions often arise when the mind is wandering.)
There are aspects of traditional tantric yogic meditation, like mantra repetition and chakra concentration, that help to build the skill of focus and attention, but then there are other aspects of traditional tantric meditation, like dhyāna, where you visualize forms of archetypal deities and then connect with those forms. These practices are not exclusively about focus, but also about cultivating creativity and insight – and they rely heavily on the DMN.
And the thing is that even when you use more focused techniques like mantra repetition, the mind tends to oscillate between focusing and spacing out. It’s normal – and it’s healthy for your brain and nervous system.
We need to accomplish tasks in life, and attention is great for that – but that’s not all human beings need to do. We also need to chew on things, assess what’s happening, question ourselves, question authority, question dominant narratives, question reality. We need to create and intuit new plans and alternate courses of action.
We’re not hardwired simply to focus and produce.
With specific pathologies like ADHD or addiction, working on strengthening the attention networks can of course be helpful, but that doesn’t mean the DMN is the problem.
As whole human beings who have whole human experiences and rich, varied lives we need to have the time and space to be able to wander within. I like to think about my yoga practice as a wonderful opportunity for this – and an antidote to our productivity obsessed culture.
Please check out my free ebook, 5 Ways Yogic Meditation Changes Your Brain.
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Wonderful piece, as usual. As Ethan Kross points out in CHATTER, humans did not evolve to “live in the moment” all the time, useful as it can be. Our capacity to imagine the future and remember the past (creating and learning) is what makes us human. It’s when one state becomes extreme (constant regret for the past, worry about the future) that pathology sets in.
Great post – many thanks for sharing! 🙏
Thanks for this! Whew! Daydreaming is “guilty” pleasure of mine 🙂
In elementary school my teachers often told my parents that I had a “problem with daydreaming”. The thing was, I did well in school; so well in fact that my friends would come to me for help with assignments, So my “problem with daydreaming” obviously did not affect my learning and may have even enhanced it:)
This is so liberating! Thanks for sharing