Mind-wandering is often a regular (and at times disruptive) influence in our everyday lives. We all do it; our attention strays and suddenly we’re thinking about everything but the task at hand. Mind-wandering can be helpful; it has been shown to enhance creativity and problem solving. Plus, when stuck in traffic or in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, mind-wandering can also be an effective means of coping with the frustration or boredom that can accompany these mundane tasks.
When we’re trying to meet a deadline, study for a test, or pay attention to our dinner date’s story about his time in the peace corps, though, mind-wandering can be more annoying than adaptive. Some mind-wandering is normal, but it can have negative consequences on our ability to perform cognitive tasks, like working memory, fluid intelligence, and standardized tests. Your cat doodles may pass the time, but they do little to stave off the embarrassment of being called on by your boss to summarize the points she just made during an important meeting.
“This quarter’s numbers? Right, um, well, they looked purr-fect to me, boss.”
So how do you stay focused when you just can’t seem to concentrate?
A recent study out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, may have the answer: mindfulness. An increassingly a popular buzzword in psychology, mindfulness has its roots in centuries-old Buddhist traditions. Though tricky to define, mindfulness is essentially qualified as sustained attentiveness, without distraction, to one’s current thoughts, feelings, and surroundings on a moment-to-moment basis.
“In practice, mindfulness training involves maintaining awareness on a particular object of attention, such as the physical sensations in the body as the breath moves in and out, from one moment to the next. Whenever the mind wanders, as it inevitably will, to thoughts, feelings, sounds, or other bodily sensations, the contents of awareness are noted, and the attention is then gently but firmly escorted back to the designated object of attention.”
Researchers wondered whether the negative effects of mind-wandering on cognitive abilities could be counteracted through this practice of mindfulness. To find out, they randomly assigned 48 college student to a mindfulness class or a nutrition class that met for 45 minutes, four times per week, over two weeks. The study participants completed a working memory capacity task and the verbal reasoning section of the GRE (modified to exclude vocabulary-related questions) in the week before the class started and again in the week after the class ended.
The results were clear: Even a brief mindfulness training program can help people to reign in their wandering minds and, in doing so, improve fundamental cognitive abilities (and your dating life!).
Compared to those who received instruction in nutrition, mindfulness training improved accuracy on the GRE and higher working memory capacity, resulting in the equivalent of a 16 percentile-point boost on the GRE, on average.
On the GRE, 16 percentile-points can mean the difference between “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted!” and “We regret to inform you…” Just imagine what that could mean for your cat doodles job performance.
If you’re new to meditation or mindfulness, trying to “focus on your breath” can be more frustrating than freeing, as Elizabeth Gilbert so humorously described (and Julia Roberts portrayed) in her first meditation experience at an ashram in India in Eat, Pray, Love. With a little bit of practice, though, you can reign in mind-wandering without leaving your chair. Here are a few great resources to help you master mindfulness:
• Listen and learn: The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers online, self-paced classes on the basics of mindfulness and how it can be applied to daily life free guided meditations via their website or for download at iTunes; and, for those in the LA area, free drop-in meditations.
• Exercise: Great for beginners, these easy to follow exercises help you practice different aspects of and approaches to mindfulness.
• There’s an app for that: There are dozens of apps designed to guide meditations and mindfulness. For some of the better ones, check out these reviews from The New York Times.
Sarah Schmermund specializes in marriage and family therapy, working with couples, individuals, and families via her private practice in Washington, D.C.