Michael Ashcroft

Mind-wandering and the dark side of productivity

My Zen practice asks me to give myself wholeheartedly to everything I do in each moment. When ironing, iron. When walking, walk. When eating, eat.

This is insanely difficult. When I have nothing to focus my attention, I can feel my mind start to wander. I get an urge to do something, like listening to a podcast. The opposite is also true though. When my attention is fully absorbed it’s like there’s no room for mind-wandering.

In fact, this is exactly how the mind works.

There are three brain networks involved in attention: the Default Mode Network, the Central Executive Network and the Salience Network.

Image adapted from [1]

The Central Executive Network is associated with narrow focus, self-control, problem solving, and rational decision making. When we’re reading or trying to solve a maths problem, we’re using the Central Executive Network.

The Default Mode Network is associated with diffuse attention, mind-wandering and spontaneous, often autobiographical thoughts. When we’re out for a walk and our thoughts start drifting into the past or future, that’s the Default Mode Network.

These two networks are ‘anticorrelated’ [1]. We can use one or the other, but not both at once, though the switch between them is fast. On completing a focused task, the Default Mode Network switches on in less than half a second [2]. This could explain why mind-wandering can start so quickly at work. As soon as our attention slips off task the Default Mode Network carries us away.

The Salience Network is there to filter information based on importance and type of content. It then influences whether it’s the Central Executive Network or the Default Mode Network in charge.

HOW AND WHY WE INTERRUPT MIND-WANDERING

When we start mind-wandering, either because we have nothing to focus on or because we have Poor Attentional Control, our thoughts and feelings go to either good or bad places. Technically, we engage in Positive-Constructive daydreaming – “playful, wishful and constructive imagery” – or Guilty-Dysphoric daydreaming – “obsessive, anguished fantasies”. [3]


I’m interested in what happens when our minds start wandering to the unpleasant, Guilty-Dysphoric places. If you’re anything like me a familiar feeling of discomfort drives you to do something to focus your attention away from difficult thoughts.

A good example is reaching for our phones in every little gap in the day. When we do this we’re essentially tricking our Salience Network, giving it information that seems important. This forces the focused Central Executive Network on and suppresses the mind-wandering Default Mode Network.

I’m sure you’ll agree from experience that this works, but I wonder if we should be using this superpower with a little more care.

THE PROBLEM WITH BLOCKING NEGATIVE MIND-WANDERING

Why, though? If our minds start reliving unpleasant, cringeworthy memories that make us feel bad, why not overwrite them with external content? There are at least two reasons that I can see.

First, because it’s only a temporary fix. Those thoughts and feelings will inevitably come back. In fact, I have a suspicion that the more we block negative thoughts, the more strongly they come back when we inevitably let our guard down. It becomes a vicious circle.

Second, mind wandering is valuable. The Default Mode Network is involved in so many positive human attributes it’s almost hard to believe.

It lets us tell stories about ourselves and conceptualise who we are in relation to others. It lets us re-experience memories and imagine the future. It even lets us simulate each other’s internal mental states so we can empathise and cooperate. [4]

It activates when we reflect on “personal preferences, beliefs, values, feelings, abilities, and physical attributes as well as engage in personal moral dilemmas”. It’s involved in how we then use these traits to guide and motivate our future behaviour. That means it’s crucial in giving us our sense of self and agency. [4]

It’s involved in learning, letting us make connections between concepts and see the bigger picture. Learning is more effective if we let our minds wander around periods of focus, giving our new knowledge a chance to latch onto our existing maps of the world. [5]

It’s also crucial for creativity. Salvador Dalí and Thomas Edison used it to come up with new ideas. They would sit holding something heavy in their hands and start to nap. Their Default Mode Network engaged and they would drop the object before they fell asleep. This would wake them up in time to capture what their wandering mind showed them. Creativity on demand. [5]

THE DARK SIDE OF ALWAYS-ON PRODUCTIVITY

The ease with which we can block mind-wandering might also reveal a dark side of today’s culture of productivity, particularly if we are prone to Guilty-Dysphoric fantasies. We can block mind-wandering any way we like – scrolling through facebook works fine – but now we can do it productively.

As someone who has always done ‘all the things, I know exactly what it feels like to want each moment to be productive. I recently started a new job in consulting, I am co-founding a ‘Carbon Removal Centre’, I am a life coach with private clients and I’m putting out a new article and newsletter every week. That’s not to mention spending time with my girlfriend and friends, exercising, reading and so on.

Given all that, my life can quickly become over-optimised. Reading a paragraph or two of an article on Instapaper while waiting for the self-checkout. Listening to a podcast while cooking. Watching YouTube lectures while eating.

But by doing this, am I missing out on the upsides of mind-wandering?

MIND-WANDERING IS VALUABLE

On the one hand, by building a system of productivity habits that we also use to block those Guilty-Dysphoric thoughts, we unknowingly blocking all the benefits of the Positive-Constructive daydreaming. And ironically, it’s these benefits that might actually make us more productive.

On the other hand, what if those Guilty-Dysphoric fantasies are valuable in themselves, even if they sometimes feel bad? By letting us re-experience past events, simulate how others feel, explore our values, and engage in learning, maybe the Default Mode Network goes to those places because it needs to.

A cringeworthy memory may help us resolve problems linked to our identity and relationships with others. While we may want to actively avoid feeling that cringe, it might be useful information: don’t behave that way again. The fact that our minds keep wandering back to those places suggests we haven’t learned our lesson yet.

And given how much we suppress our mind-wandering Default Mode Network, I also wonder if there is a kind of backlog of processing that we just need to work through. Maybe Guilty-Dysphoric thoughts can be such a problem because we don’t know how to deal with emotions that we deem ‘negative’. I’ve found that when I stop running from those emotions and experience them non-judgementally, they often tend to go away, or at least get a little less intense.

I think we should invite our Default Mode Network out to play more often, but learn to be more skilful with it. Rather than design our lives to push it away, and missing out on a long list of benefits, we can make friends with it and fully integrate it into our lives.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4038855/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3041085/

[3] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-origins-of-positive-constructive-daydreaming/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3553600/

[5] https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

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I publish a regular newsletter called Thinking Out Loud, which covers things like stuff like building in public, Total Work, solarpunk, carbon removal, sense-making, building communities, creating positive narratives for the future, identity and various other things.
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