Study focuses on wandering minds

March 21, 2007

Do your thoughts stray from your work or studies? Do you catch yourself making to-do lists when your attention should be elsewhere? Welcome to the club.

College students reported mind-wandering almost one-third of the time in their daily lives, according to a new study led by faculty and graduate students at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The study will be published in the July issue of Psychological Science.

The study followed 124 undergraduates, who carried personal digital assistants for a week. The PDAs signaled the students eight times a day between noon and midnight to report whether their thoughts were wandering away from what they were doing and to answer multiple-choice questions about their current activity, surroundings and state of mind.

On average, the students reported mind-wandering in about 30 percent of their responses. But individual results varied widely: One student reported no mind wandering, while another reported it in more than 90 percent of responses.

Despite being so common, mind-wandering remains little studied and poorly understood, said Dr. Michael Kane, an associate professor of psychology at UNCG, who led the study. "If you want to understand people's mental lives, this is a phenomenon we ought to be thinking about," he told the Associated Press.

Why does attention wander? And why are some better able to control it than others? The answers to these questions could be used to improve reading comprehension and change the way teachers present their lessons. This information could help prevent accidents and treat those with attention-deficit disorders, Kane said.

The study produced other interesting findings. The students were first given a working memory capacity (WMC) test, a kind of intelligence test that asks subjects to remember short lists while they are simultaneously engaged in another mental task.

Overall, WMC did not predict mind wandering. But during activities requiring concentration and mental effort, higher WMC subjects maintained focus better than lower WMC subjects.
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The team of study authors includes faculty members Dr. Paul Silvia and Dr. Thomas Kwapil, and doctoral students Leslie Brown and Jennifer McVay, all in the UNCG Department of Psychology. Dr. Inez Myin-Germeys of the University of Maastricht also is an investigator.

Association for Psychological Science

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