In a world of beeping smartphones and overstuffed to-do lists, focus can seem like the most precious commodity around. That's why we're all so desperate to kill distractions and learn to control our attention.
Experts of all stripes have responded to this desire, offering mindfulness practices, daily rituals, and even a host of concentration-boosting apps to help us achieve this much-longed for focus. But maybe the right answer isn't journaling, meditation, or a better to-do list (or maybe not only these things). Maybe the answer is to learn to love your wandering mind.
That's one possible takeaway of a fascinating article on the science of the idle brain that appeared on the BBC recently. Essentially, it asks the question, 'What is your mind doing when it drifts off the task at hand?' Your gut instinct might answer, 'nothing important', but apparently a host of scientific studies suggests otherwise.
The evolving science of the idle mind
"Almost 3000 scientific papers have been published on the topic of the brain's surprisingly busy 'resting state'. Some object to this term for the very reason that the brain isn't resting at all. They prefer instead to talk about the 'default mode network'--the areas of the brain which remain active while we are apparently idle," explains writer Claudia Hammond.
So what exactly is your brain doing when you're staring into the middle distance? Scientists are sure it's actively doing something, but they're still not 100 percent sure what that is.
"There are plenty of theories, but no agreement yet," reports Hammond, who ticks off a range of possibilities. "Maybe different brain areas are simply practising working together. Perhaps the brain is staying active like an idling car, just in case it needs to act suddenly. But it's possible that those mind wanderings and replays of our day play a vital role in helping us to consolidate our memories," she writes.
And here's one more theory from Harvard Medical School's Moshe Bar: "He believes daydreaming essentially creates memories of events that haven't happened. This gives us a strange set of 'prior experiences' we can draw on to help us decide how to act if the daydreams ever do come to pass."
Daydreaming is good for you
If you're fascinated by the workings of your brain, all of this is no doubt food for thought, but according to Hammond there may be a practical takeaway here as well. Daydreams can be incredibly frustrating when you're trying to finish a project -- and you're no doubt right to deploy your full concentration-boosting arsenal when a deadline looms -- but it's neither possible, nor desirable to achieve anything near constant focus. Your brain needs some downtime.
In short, daydreaming (aka 'the resting state') is good for you. "The discovery of the resting state also has the potential to change the way we each feel about our brains. We know how hard it is to empty our minds. We know how our minds have a frustrating tendency to wander even when we don't want them to. But the emerging picture suggests these quirks might actually be beneficial--even if they do prevent us from finishing a task in time to meet a deadline. In other words, perhaps it's time to celebrate the virtues of an idle mind," Hammond concludes.
Does that make you feel any better about your struggles with concentration?