By Steven G. Mehta
Everybody has ADD? Well not exactly ADD. But everybody has difficulty paying attention to a task for more than a few minutes. Even the most simplest of tasks. In fact, not paying attention may actually have significant benefits. Recent research has shown that people experience a very high rate of not paying attention during activities. During these times the mind wanders off to another place. Only in the past decade have they even measured just how common mind wandering is.
According to Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara who is one of the leading researchers on mind wandering, people’s minds wander quite frequently. In one study, he found that on average, the students reported that their minds wandered 5.4 times in a 45-minute session. Other researchers have gotten similar results with simple tasks, such as pronouncing words or pressing a button in response to seeing particular letters and numbers. Depending on the experiment, people spend up to half their time not thinking about the task at hand—even when they’ve been told explicitly to pay attention.
Research has also found that wandering increases in response to sad stimuli and decreases in response to happy stimuli. In other words, you mood will affect your ability to pay attention to the topic at hand.
When our minds wander, we lose touch with the outside world. We are more likely to make mistakes, fail to encode memories, or miss a connection. Zoning out makes us particularly prone to these errors.
Despite the fact that zoning out can create errors, it actually isn’t a bad thing for the creative mind. According to Schooler, mind wandering allows us to work through some major issues and thought processes. Zoning lets us not focus on the immediate, but instead lets us work on the long term. According to researchers, there is no coincidence that most of the thoughts that people have during mind wandering have to do with the future. In other words, wandering minds are good for the big picture.
Indeed, research has been done on people that have sudden insights regarding long term projects and the research has surprisingly found that many of the regions that become active during those creative flashes belong to the default network and the executive control system that are directly involved when zoning or wandering.
According to Schooler, our bodies have a way of calculating when are mission critical times that you need to be focusing on the present and when you can contemplate deeper thoughts.
Applying the Research
First, don’t worry if you mind wanders. I know the teachers and professors in the world don’t want to hear this. But wandering is a natural part of your process.
Second, if you are in a mediation, and you want the parties to focus on your statements or efforts, try to lighten the mood. Given the often difficult subject that is involved in mediation, it is not surprising that the parties in mediation may be in a sadder state of mind. Focusing their attention on happy thoughts will have two benefits: one, it will take them away from contemplating the past; and two it will have the effect of allowing them to pay more attention to your statements and actions.
Third, given that people will naturally zone, it is important that you make sure that you repeat your message in different ways. This will ensure that your message will be communicated during a time when the person is paying attention.
Finally, given the extremely short attention span, don’t focus on any one specific thing too long. According to the research, new items will keep the person interested longer. As such, make sure to change up your presentation, your style, your words, and anything else. The more newer and fresher that you keep it, the better chance you will have of keeping the parties’ attention.
Discover Magazine, July-August issue, 2009, first published on June 15, 2009