Wandering Minds Are Due to Working Memory Capacity
going about your business, when all of the sudden your mind wanders …
what just happened? Studies have shown that our minds wander half the
time we’re doing something.
A new study suggests the reason behind wandering minds: it’s all about
your working memory capacity.
The researchers asked volunteers to perform one of two simple tasks
— either pressing a button in response to the appearance of a certain
letter on a screen, or simply tapping in time with one’s breath — and
compared people’s propensity to drift off.
"We intentionally use tasks that will never use all of their
attention," Smallwood explains, "and then we ask, how do people
use their idle resources?"
Throughout the tasks, the researchers checked in periodically with
the participants to ask if their minds were on task or wandering. At
the end, they measured each participant’s working memory capacity, scored
by their ability to remember a series of letters given to them interspersed
with easy math questions.
In both tasks, there was a clear correlation. "People with
higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these
simple tasks," says Levinson, though their performance on the test
was not compromised.
The result is the first positive correlation found between working
memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually
enable off-topic thoughts.
"What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances
for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working
memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re
doing," Smallwood says.