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Science Daily – Wandering Minds Are Due to Working Memory Capacity

March 17, 2012

Science Daily has an article on a piece of research that was conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science,

This is not unrelated to the word association tests conducted by Jung just over a century ago. The researchers in the new study are trying to understand what goes on by framing it in terms of an active conscious process and a passive unconscious process, whereas Jung offered his explanation in terms of an active conscious process competing with an active unconscious process.

A Wandering Mind Reveals Mental Processes and Priorities
ScienceDaily (Mar. 15, 2012) — Odds are, you’re not going to make it all the way through this article without thinking about something else. In fact, studies have found that our minds are wandering half the time, drifting off to thoughts unrelated to what we’re doing — did I remember to turn off the light? What should I have for dinner?
A new study investigating the mental processes underlying a wandering mind reports a role for working memory, a sort of a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously.
Imagine you see your neighbor upon arriving home one day and schedule a lunch date. On your way to add it to your calendar, you stop to turn off the drippy faucet, feed the cat, and add milk to your grocery list. The capacity that allows you to retain the lunch information through those unrelated tasks is working memory.
"Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life — when they’re on the bus, when they’re cycling to work, when they’re in the shower — are probably supported by working memory," says Smallwood. "Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems."
In essence, working memory can help you stay focused, but if your mind starts to wander those resources get misdirected and you can lose track of your goal. Many people have had the experience of arriving at home with no recollection of the actual trip to get there, or of suddenly realizing that they’ve turned several pages in a book without comprehending any of the words.

"It’s almost like your attention was so absorbed in the mind wandering that there wasn’t any left over to remember your goal to read," Levinson says.
Where your mind wanders may be an indication of underlying priorities being held in your working memory, whether conscious or not, he says. But it doesn’t mean that people with high working memory capacity are doomed to a straying mind. The bottom line is that working memory is a resource and it’s all about how you use it, he says. "If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too."
Levinson is now studying how attentional training to increase working memory will affect wandering thoughts, to better understand the connection and how people can control it. "Mind wandering isn’t free — it takes resources," he says. "You get to decide how you want to use your resources."

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120315161326.htm

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