Willingham: How 'mind-wandering' affects students
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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| 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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