SPOILER ALERT! Mind wandering refers to moments of low attention and low vigilance In this state, we typically have negative thoughts, because we focus on everything that is wrong in our life That creates a vicious cycle where we feel dissatisfied with life and depressed. Mindfulness helps you refocus on the present moment Practicing gratitude is very helpful
Research indicates that we have a neural predisposition to suffering and unhappiness. This unfortunate fact is the result of what is called mind-wandering, which is a phenomenon in which the brain jumps from one thought to the next without correlations or relevancy.
What is mind wandering?
It happens during states of low vigilance such as when we are reading, having a conversation, or even driving. In that moment we think about a million other things besides what we are already doing, because on a regular basis we have about 150 things that need our attention, enough to keep our mind occupied.
What is more significant is that mind- wandering produces thoughts that are imbued with negativity and a focus on imperfections, albeit thoughts about what we don’t like. In fact, mind-wandering and mindfulness are two opposite spectrums of brain functioning.
Our evolutionary tendency to pay attention to threats led to the emergence of the negativity bias theory in psychology, which describes mind-wandering as a process by which we often turn our focus to everything that is wrong in our life, and to what we hate about ourselves and others.
Mind wandering linked to negative emotions
This in turn arouses negative feelings, such as dissatisfaction and unhappiness, which then becomes fodder for further mind-wandering. Ultimately, it generates a vicious cycle that prevents us from enjoying life and being happy, because the more a brain network is activated, the stronger it gets, and therefore the more redundancy it acquires ( that is the same behavior is repeated automatically, and in this case the same negative thoughts appear)
Studies reveal that the more time we spend in mind-wandering mode, the more likely we are at risk for anxiety, depression, attention deficits and even dementia. Unfortunately, it has been found that we spend 50% to 80% of our time in this mode, which implies that at least 50% of the time we run on auto-pilot. That is mind boggling – no pun intended. Further compounding this already grim picture, negativity bias is only one of many other neuronal predispositions that further contributes to our inability to achieve total enjoyment; however, for the sake of simplicity I will stop here.
Mindfulness helps reduce mind-wandering
Now, let us move on to the good news. Mind-wandering is only one of the two modes achieved by the brain, the other one is focused mode or mindfulness. Focused mode is engaged when we process interesting, meaningful and novel stimuli, for example going to a new restaurant, meeting friends, or even playing with a baby.
Focused mode grounds you in the moment so that you fully appreciate what is happening. When you are focused on the present moment, you are able to experience those often elusive positive emotions, such as enjoyment, excitement, and even happiness.
One way to activate focused mind mode is to practice gratitude. Show appreciation to the people around you, and give thanks for things that you take for granted, including the things that seem insignificant to you. For example, be ecstatic that the sun rose again, be thankful that you woke up and are drinking your coffee.
Doing so will bring salience (i.e., draw your attention to) to those things, they will become more meaningful. By showing appreciation to the people who are around you, you will see them in a new light, as if they were new people, their presence can then become exciting.
Meditating to increase mindfulness
Meditation is also another way of reducing mind-wandering. More specifically, studies show that meditation is associated with reduced activation in the default mode network, which is essentially mind-wandering mode. Through meditation, we can reduce this dichotomy between mind-wandering and mindfulness by being more focused and alert. Meditation is a tool that allows us to recognize our thoughts as they arise without trying to erase them or react to them. You simply see your thoughts as they come and you let them pass by, you do not act on them. The ultimate result of meditation is increased awareness to yourself and your surroundings.
Garrison, K.A., Zeffiro, T.A., Scheinost, D., Constable, R.T., and Brewer J.A. 2015. Mediation leads to reduced default mode network activity beyond an active task. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci., 15 (3), 712-720.
Sood A. (2015). Happy Brain. How to overcome our neural predisposition to suffering [Video file]. Retrieved