By Michael Corballis 04/02/2016

We seem to be in the grip of something called mindfulness.

As I understand it, this is a form of meditation in which you are urged to focus on the present, and on your own body. You might start by focusing on the toes, and move systematically up the body—toes, knees, hips, chest, jaw, tongue, before exiting through the top of the head, or perhaps setting out on the return voyage. I believe it’s best to sit cross-legged on a cushion, and you might then vary the routine by focusing intently on the pressure exerted by the cushion on your behind. Mindfulness, they say, relieves tension and promotes well-being.

It is in many respects the opposite of mind wandering, in which we mentally move away from the present, to different places at different times, and even into the minds of others. Unlike mindfulness, mind wandering has something of a bad reputation. Most of us were chastised as children for not paying attention in class. A 2010 article in Science magazine carried the title “The wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” casting further disfavour on mind wandering. It was based on an iPhone survey of over 2000 people, who were simply asked what they were doing, and then asked to rate their happiness. Just under half of them reported that their minds had wandered away from what they were supposed to be doing, and those whose minds had wandered declared themselves less happy that those who were on the job at hand.

One reason for unhappiness is that mind wandering is often comprised of ruminations over past indiscretions or failures. We tend to brood unhappily on the past. But of course not all mind wandering is unhappy. We can revel in past triumphs, make plans for a productive future, or dream up glorious if unrealistic fantasies—although we might later feel a bit guilty that we hadn’t dealt with some matter of, um, importance. It should be said, too, that unhappiness itself is not always a bad thing, even in the hedonistic modern world, because it may help us avoid things we wish we hadn’t done.

I don’t want to deny people whatever pleasure or strength they may derive from mindfulness, but it does seem to me to be a bit like being locked into a dark cell, when you could allow your mind to wander into the wide worlds of time and space, or into the minds of others, including those gods and goddesses we create in order to indulge our fantasies or raise our hopes. Mind wandering is the basis of storytelling—literature, movies, TV soaps, everyday gossip. We are blessed with the facility to mentally wander almost instantly to other parts of the globe. In the blink of an eye you can be in Paris again, or somewhere in the Andes, or even in some purely imaginary Eden. Of course mind wandering doesn’t give us quite the richness or detail of an actual journey, but it’s fast and you can add your own frills.

Mind wandering is the essence of creativity. Carlo Rovelli, in his book Nine Brief Lessons on Physics (Penguin, 2015), writing about Albert Einstein, remarks that “You don’t get anywhere by not ‘wasting’ time.” Einstein was a notorious mind wanderer, but his creativity was legendary. Whether we like it or not, it seems our minds are programmed to wander, maybe about half the time. We even do it while asleep, as we dream. Mind wandering is the brain’s access to random thoughts and connections, the unexpected ideas that have driven human progress and made us what we are.

Go for it.

Featured image: Flickr CC, Irmeli Aro.

0 Responses to “Forget mindfulness – let your mind wander instead”

  • Your description of mindfulness is not what I have read. I’ve seen it described as a focus on something physical – smells, sounds etc that is a way of distracting your mind from focusing on unproductive thoughts, or as a way of “punctuating” your stream of thought allowing you to take a breath between different activities during the day. I’ve never had to cross my legs to do it, it typically takes less than a minute, and I find it quite useful.
    But I guess that mindfulness has accumulated a lot of different definitions and activities depending on who is selling you their version (and it has become a bit of a money spinner for some people.
    I also wouldn’t see it as an either/or. My mind wanders particularly when I am going to sleep – to different places I have been and sometimes to places I don’t recognise.
    It seems to me that mindfulness is one way of stopping your mind from wandering into negative thought patterns, but when your mind wanders in a positive or creative way that is a good thing too (unless it is in a meeting and you get caught 🙂 )

    • Yes, I’m told that mindfulness is one way to curtail negative thoughts. But then there’s also the old Frank Sinatra song, “Dream when you’re feeling blue.”

  • Yes, there seem to be multiple versions of mindfulness. The common theme seems to be a focus on the present. Mind wandering, in contrast, allows us to mentally travel into past and future, into imaginary worlds, and into the minds of other people. We do this anyway, including in our dreams, as you point out. I think mindfulness has become something of a cult, a buzzword, and as you say a bit of a money spinner. Perhaps it’s not all snake oil, but I’d like to think we should also encourage people (and kids) to let their minds wander. There could be an Einstein or two out there.

  • This is a wonderful piece Michael – the relationship between mind-wandering and creativity needs to be heard and explained more consistently. I say so because for us, in Occupational Psychology mindfulness in the workplace as an intervention (sold by some practitioners) has become so popular, yet it seems to me that in some workplaces mindfulness can be detrimental – e.g. in workplaces where creativity is a key output of the job.

    Anyway, you might be interested in reading this seminal piece by Asimov (1971) – The Eureka phenomenon. In it Asimov describes how purposeful mind wandering can help unlock creativity by focusing on unrelated random thoughts/activities to your problem at hand.

    Asimov, I. (1971). The Eureka Phenomenon. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, pp. 107-116.

  • Very interesting piece. I completely agree about the value of letting one’s mind wander and the connection to creativity. However, I personally find mindfulness meditation (MBSR) to serve a unique purpose.

    I am a person who lives in my head. I have a vivid imagination and my brain is constantly thinking. I have minimal awareness of my physical body throughout the day.

    As I meditate, I become an observer – of my thinking and of my body – of whatever I’m experiencing in the present moment. I don’t attach to it, I don’t engage with it though – a part of me observes it and moves on, by turning my awareness to, say, another part of my body or back to my breathing. It’s like I’m watching my train of thought but not getting onboard. Which is very, very difficult but ultimately, for me, a huge relief. It feels like something changes in my brain when I let go of engaging with my thoughts. It profoundly changes the way I feel, post-meditation. My brain feels calmer, less reactive, more centered. (That may sound cliched but that’s the reality of how it feels to me.) But that calm, centered state in no way prevents me from letting my mind or imagination wander. If anything, it makes me more aware of when my mind is wandering but it doesn’t impinge upon the wandering or my creativity.

    I think it’s important to distinguish between a wandering mind and a ruminating mind. I find that mindfulness meditation does help in reducing rumination – an almost compulsive activity that, in my opinion, is not creative or beneficial.