I’ve been living in Thailand for the last 13 months and it has been amazing for the most part. Stay motivated and focused with our exclusive weekly updates .Plus receive your free 5 step guide to optimal health. New research reveals what happens in a wandering mind—and sheds light on the cognitive and emotional benefits of increased focus. This suggests it might be good to find ways to reduce these mental distractions and improve our ability to focus.
For something that happens so often, what do we really know about this process of mind-wandering? For thousands of years, contemplative practices such as meditation have provided a means to look inward and investigate our mental processes. If you’re like most people, before long your attention will wander away into rumination, fantasy, analyzing, planning. However, the practice is really meant to highlight this natural trajectory of the mind, and in doing so, it trains your attention systems to become more aware of the mental landscape at any given moment, and more adept at navigating it. As a neuroscientist and meditator, I’d long been fascinated with what might be happening in my brain when I meditate.
I started by considering the default mode network, a set of brain areas that tend to increase in activity when we’re not actively engaged in anything else—in other words, when our minds tend to wander. Supported by funding from the Mind & Life Institute, and with the help of colleagues at Emory University, I started to test which brain areas were related to meditation. The study, published in the journal NeuroImage, found that, indeed, during periods of mind-wandering, regions of the brain’s default mode network were activated. Looking at activity in these brain networks this way suggests that when you catch your mind wandering, you are going through a process of recognizing, and shifting out of, default mode processing by engaging numerous attention networks. It’s not surprising—this kind of repeated mental exercise is like going to the gym, only you’re building your brain instead of your muscles. In our study, we also wanted to look at the effects of lifetime meditation experience on brain activity.
One brain area stood out in this analysis: the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the default mode network that is particularly related to self-focused thoughts, which make up a good portion of mind-wandering content. In a follow-up study, we found that these same participants had greater coherence between activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and brain areas that allow you to disengage attention.
This might explain how it feels easier to “drop” thoughts as you become more experienced in meditation—and thus better able to focus. Indeed, the Killingsworth and Gilbert study I mentioned earlier found that when people’s minds were wandering, they tended to be less happy, presumably because our thoughts often tend towards negative rumination or stress.
Reading all this might make you think that we’d be better off if we could live our lives in a constant state of laser-like, present moment focus.
The key, I believe, is learning to become aware of these mental tendencies and to use them purposefully, rather than letting them take over.


So don’t beat yourself up the next time you find yourself far away from where your mind was supposed to be.
According to Dacher Keltner, there are important evolutionary reasons: It's good for our minds, bodies, and social connections.
Diana Divecha describes how your mind, body, and life will change with the arrival of a baby. Finds that feeling gratitude produces kind and helpful behavior, even when that behavior is costly to the individual actor. Become a member of the Greater Good Science Center to enjoy exclusive articles, videos, discounts, and other special benefits. I spent an hour in a floatation tank last weekend at Thaisolate Ko Samui, It has been something I have wanted to do for over two years but never got the opportunity until now. It was exactly one year since my first one and thought it would be a good idea to share what it was like. In fact, a recent study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert sampled over 2,000 adults during their day-to-day activities and found that 47 percent of the time, their minds were not focused on what they were currently doing. Ironically, mind-wandering itself can help strengthen our ability to focus, if leveraged properly. It may seem surprising, but mind-wandering is actually a central element of focused attention (FA) meditation. With repeated practice, it doesn’t take so long to notice that you’ve slipped into some kind of rumination or daydream.
Being familiar with both subjective, first-person meditative practice and objective, third-person scientific research, I wondered what would happen if I put these two modes of investigation together. Maybe it was this default mode network that kept barging in during my meditation, interfering with my ability to keep my attention focused. We asked meditators to focus on their breath while we scanned their brains: whenever they realized their minds had been wandering, they’d press a button.
Then when participants became aware of this mind-wandering, brain regions related to the detection of salient or relevant events came online. Understanding the way the brain alternates between focused and distracted states has implications for a wide variety of everyday tasks. Recent behavioral research shows that practicing meditation trains various aspects of attention.
And mind-wandering is like the weight you add to the barbell—you need some “resistance” to the capacity you’re trying to build.
In agreement with a growing number of studies, we found that experience mattered—those who were more experienced meditators had different levels of brain activity in the relevant networks. It turns out that experienced meditators deactivated this region more quickly after identifying mind-wandering than people who hadn’t meditated as much—suggesting they might be better at releasing distracting thoughts, like a re-hash of a personal To Do list or some slight they suffered at work yesterday.
This means that the brain regions for attentional disengagement have greater access to the brain regions underlying the distraction, possibly making it easier to disengage.


Thoughts become less sticky because your brain gets re-wired to be better at recognizing and disengaging from mind-wandering.
That’s why mindfulness meditation has become an increasingly important treatment of mental health difficulties like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even sexual dysfunction. ZakA look at the hormone oxytocin's role in trust and how that may be the basis of a well-functioning economic system. After studying yoga in more detail I have realized that the yoga we all know is only a small part of Yoga. I have found both courses challenging but so rewarding and feel they improved my meditation practice ten fold.
With this awareness, you proceed to disengage from the thought that had drawn your mind away, and steer your attention back to your breath. It also becomes easier to drop your current train of thought and return your focus to the breath. Could I get a more fine-grained picture of how this process works in the brain by leveraging the experience of these cognitive shifts during meditation?
Then they would return their focus to the breath as usual, and the practice would continue. After that, areas of the executive brain network took over, re-directing and maintaining attention on the chosen object. For example, when your mind wandered off in that meeting, it might help to know you’re slipping into default mode—and you can deliberately bring yourself back to the moment. Without mind-wandering to derail your attempts to remain focused, how could you train the skills of watching your mind and controlling your attention? Other findings support this idea—more experienced meditators have increased connectivity between default mode and attention brain regions, and less default mode activity while meditating. Not only can we leverage it to build focus using FA meditation, but the capacity to project our mental stream out of the present and imagine scenarios that aren’t actually happening is hugely evolutionarily valuable, which may explain why it’s so prominent in our mental lives. Indeed, a new wave of research reveals what happens in our brains when our minds wander—and sheds light on the host of cognitive and emotional benefits that come with increased focus.
Those who practice say that thoughts start to seem less “sticky”—they don’t have such a hold on you. As they did so, we collected MRI data showing which brain regions were active before, during, or after the button press that corresponded to various mental states. These processes allow for creativity, planning, imagination, memory—capacities that are central not only to our survival, but also to the very essence of being human. But you may still want to return to the present moment—so you can come up with an answer to that question everyone is waiting for.



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