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Posted at 12:09 PM ET, 11/15/2010

Willingham: How 'mind-wandering' affects students

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
It may be a uniquely human ability that we are able to think about things that are not in the here and now. We can reflect on the past, anticipate the future, or fantasize about the impossible.

This cognitive capacity is doubtless critical to humankind’s creativity, and is thus crucial to innovations in technology, politics, science, and all human affairs.

As individuals, however, daydreaming incurs an emotional cost.

In a recent study, researchers created an iPhone app that, at random times, would prompt the user to answer a few brief questions: What are you doing right now? Were you thinking about the activity? If not, were you thinking about something happy, sad, or neutral? What sort of mood are you in right now?

The researchers analyzed data collected from 2,250 people in the United States as they went about their daily lives.

So how often were people thinking about something other than what they were doing?

Nearly half the time. Mind-wandering occurred in 46.9% of the samples.

Remarkably, what people were doing at the time had only a modest impact on the likelihood of mind-wandering.

Mind-wandering was about as likely when people were shopping, reading, watching their kids, or commuting, and mind-wandering was observed at least 30% of the time during any of the activities. (There was one notable exception. People’s minds did not wander when they were making love.)

A second important finding of the study was that people were less happy when their minds were wandering.

This finding might seem obvious; people’s minds wander because they are unhappy. They are looking for something nice to think about.

But the researchers used a technique called time-lag analysis that allowed them to conclude that your mind doesn’t wander because you are unhappy. You are unhappy because your mind is wandering.

As the researchers put it: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

I had always assumed that mind-wandering was a particular problem in the classroom. But these data seem to indicate that our minds wander everywhere, not just at school.

The fact that mind wandering seems “natural” does not, of course, make it desirable or acceptable.

Teachers still need to keep kids’ minds on task. As every teacher knows, an effective way to do that is for something in the class to change: if kids have been listening to the teacher, have students discuss something in groups. If they’ve been completing a written assignment, have them watch a video.

Whenever the teacher switches gears, it brings all the wandering minds back to the teacher, ready for a fresh try.

These data do not help teachers solve the problem of mind-wandering. They might, however, give everyone else a sense of the challenge that teachers face in keeping kids minds on their work.

After all, the rest of us are not so effective in keeping our own minds on what we’re doing.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 15, 2010; 12:09 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  brain research, cognitive science, daniel willingham, mind-wandering  
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It is nice of a few researchers at Harvard to do a study of "mind-wandering". It is very important to remind readers that this is only one, very limited study and to not extrapolate any big conclusions from this. That's what the profit-hungry media do to confuse and misinform the public.
We know that many more studies must be done and compared to even begin making useful and worthy conclusions. The human mind is far too complex and variables are far too many to not acknowledge this up front in a report.
Happy is a very subjective term and should not be bandied about. Many will agree that "mind-wandering" is one way of dealing with stress or conflict and happens anytime during any task. It may very well be a healthy way of coping with all the baggage a person constantly carries around, no matter what their age.
Mr Willingham very commendably tries to better inform the public of the complexities and difficulties of what every classroom teacher must deal with every minute on the job. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 15, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Does this mean that we would actually have to have some sympathy for students and their teachers? If keeping on task for 6-7 hours on end is actually tough for everyone, that might mean that the elimination of recess in favor of more test prep is actually a bad idea. And acknowledging that teachers face extreme challenges might force us to consider that maybe they are not the utter failures that everyone seems to think.
Because I feel like that might put a dent in the incredible momentum that this recent push for reform has gathered.

Posted by: formerDCPSstudent | November 15, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

These researchers used something called "time lag analysis" to conclude that "A human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind." This is fatuous drivel. It follows, of course, that humans are, then, unhappy. Our own experience should tell us that such conclusions are hardly laws of human nature. When the mind wanders, it can be for many reasons, and it doesn't always or even usually result from unhappiness nor does it cause unhappiness. In my classes, when something like this comes up, my students are encouraged to "call B.S." on the writer.

Posted by: seecee | November 15, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

@seecee: you're right that other data seem to conflict with these; specifically, people are pretty happy. Ask 100 people to rate their happiness from 1 to 10 and the mean will not be 5, but more like 6 or even closer to 7.
In this study, people's whose minds were wandering rated themselves as less happy than those who were engaged in what they were doing. The basic idea of time-lag analysis is this: you see a wandering mind at time N. If the mind wandered because the person was unhappy, you should be likely to see unhappiness at time N-1, and perhaps, happiness at time N +1 (because thinking of something else made you feel better). If the unhappiness was *caused* by mind-wandering, you would expect to see eitehr happiness or unhappiness at time N-1, but you'd def. predict unhappiness at time N + 1.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | November 16, 2010 4:36 AM | Report abuse

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