‘A quick trip to Tahiti’ is what it feels like when our mind wanders. No matter what we do, where we are, or how important or valuable the task in front of us is, our minds wander. Interestingly, the research shows that we are less happy when our mind wanders than when it doesn’t and what we think about during our mind wandering state is a far stronger predictor of our happiness than tasks we are in the middle of performing. Yet, the mind highjacked by mind-wandering can stay oblivious to its short trips.
On this episode, researcher, author, and distinguished professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California Santa Barbara, Jonathan Schooler, Ph. D., discusses his work in human cognition; particularly mind-wandering, its disruptive nature, its hidden benefits, and its link to meta-awareness. As he explains, since the mind is only intermittently aware of engaging in mind wandering, enhancing meta-awareness can be an important process to heighten monitoring and improve executive function.
About Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.
Jonathan Schooler Ph.D. is a Distinguished Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California Santa Barbara. He earned his BA from Hamilton College in 1981 and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1987. His research on human cognition explores topics that intersect philosophy and psychology, such as how fluctuations in people’s awareness of their experience mediate mind-wandering and how exposing individuals to philosophical positions alters their behavior.
He is also interested in the science of science (meta-science) including understanding why effects sizes often decline over time, and how greater transparency in scientific reporting might address this issue. A former holder of a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair, he is a fellow of a variety of scientific organizations, on the editorial board of a number of psychology journals and the recipient of major grants from both the United States and Canadian governments as well as several private foundations. His research and comments are frequently featured in major media outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Nature Magazine.
About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.
Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. As we have been doing for a long time we talk about executive function, we talk about agency over our mind, and our decision making, and most importantly, how to become the most informed person about self. And there are some barriers and how to kind of acknowledge, recognize or circumvent those barriers. Today, we're going to talk about a very important topic called mind wandering. But before I get into that, I wanted to share a quick story with you. So when I entered high school, my mother took me to a yogi. For a prescription for a chanchala mind. Chanchala in Sanskrit means a restless mind. So I was prescribed a moonstone, which I wore on my pinky finger for three years of high school. And it's very interesting because I neither was chanchala, or my mind was not restless at all. But I did, I was very creative in my mind, I was not allowed to are allowed to channel my creativity. But what I understand now that mind wandering I was not such an aberration. So in fact, we are very lucky because we have our guest and a very renowned researcher who's going to talk about virtues of mind wandering. So without any further ado, I would like to introduce Dr. Johnathan Schooler. He is a distinguished professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He earned his bachelor's degree from Hamilton College and PhD from University of Washington. His research on human cognition explores topics that intersect philosophy and psychology, which is I love this because that's where the rubber meets the road, this cross functionality or cross pollination, his mind, you can understand how his mind is informed. But he thinks about and ponders over and researches fluctuations in people's awareness of their experiences, and how exposing individuals to philosophical positions and how that alters their behavior. He's also interested in the science of science, which is called metacognition or meta science, including understand why effect sizes often decline over time, and how greater transparency in scientific reporting may address that issue. This part is a little bit beyond my paygrade. But I think the last part I will say about his word that his research and comments are frequently featured in major media outlet, including New York Times, The New Yorker, the Nature magazine, and he is considered one of the most amazing modern thinker whose philosophical perspective and deep cognition, knowledge of cognition has really shaped the way we make things these things allowable, which is mind wandering, welcome to the show. How are you today?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Good to be here. Thank you. Great.
Sucheta Kamath: Great. So um, before I jump into this very important topic, mind wandering, since we talked about executive function. Do you mind telling us a little bit about yourself as a young learner, young child? Were you very informed or meta aware about your learning how to learn skills and your executive function skills? How were they?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Um, I was, I would say, a little bit challenged. I remember the my report card. I actually recently tracked down my report card from when I was in first grade, Mrs. Schork. And she said, when I think of Jonathan, I imagine him at the end of the line, five feet behind everybody else, shoes untied, entirely preoccupied and completely content.
Sucheta Kamath: Oh, my God, a Zen master, a mini Zen Master, I love it.
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: A bit of a scan. I wasn't very present. So I'm not sure I don't really think I was a Zen master. But I, I was even then sort of fascinated with the wanderings of, of my own mind. And I think I did struggle. And even to this day, I struggle to sort of hold my attention when it's being drawn elsewhere. But for I'm fortunate that when it is drawn elsewhere, typically my mind wandering is is quite interesting. And we'll talk later about how I think interesting mind wandering is less problematic and more likely to be beneficial.
Sucheta Kamath: And you know, what I meant about the Zen master is the emphasis on content. I think that is such a beautiful state of being, like, you know, curious yet content that is not easy to master. So you had some gifts there. So I really appreciate that. So let's begin with this question about what is mind wandering? And how do you define that?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Yeah, so um, It has to be said that mind wandering has been used in a lot of different ways. And so we actually think of it a bit in sort of a family resemblance manner where in the same way that it's hard to come up with a single definition that captures all definitions of games. But we have a general sense of what a game is. Mind wandering really fits in that category. In fact, there's a whole sort of extended debate in the literature about exactly how to define mind wandering, I think, what's fair to say is that there's different kinds of mind wandering. And the kind of mind wandering that I focus primarily on is something known as a task, unrelated thinking. So if you're reading, and your mind is not attending to the material that you're reading, but you're thinking about something completely unrelated, that would sort of be a prototypical example of mind wandering, or you're driving, you drive past the exit, or you're taking you're in a class and your mind wandering about, what, what interests you, as opposed to what's being said, in the class. So that's sort of the quintessential kind of mind wandering. But I also think, if you're taking a walk, and walking past people, you know, because you're so absorbed, in your own thinking that that would also constitute mind wandering.
Sucheta Kamath: I see. I see. And so then is mind wandering, same as daydreaming? And are they both related to the brain's default mode network or, or sometimes called as test negative network?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Yes, absolutely. That's spot on. Some people do distinguish mind wandering from daydreaming. And I think that that's, that's reasonable. One way that people distinguish it is mind wandering, would be when there's another task at hand. So you're, you know, reading and you're thinking about something unrelated, that would be mind wandering. Whereas if you're just sitting at your desk, not doing anything staring out into space, thinking about something that could be daydreaming, but we use mind wandering, and daydreaming interchangeably. And the research that's investigated mind wandering up generally has found both when there's something else to do, or when there's not, if you're in the scanner, that you find this activation of this network of regions, known as the default mode network. So if we have if we give you a task to do in the scanner, and then if we ping you periodically, and ask you, were you attending to the task, or we thinking about something unrelated to the task, if you were thinking about something unrelated to the task, you're more likely to see activation of the default mode network or greater activation of the default mode network.
Sucheta Kamath: Got it? Got it. So your work shows that significant mind wandering is about the future. So what what's surprising to me about that is, then is rumination, different from mind, wandering?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Rumination in the way that we think about mind wandering is actually a category of my warning is one place that the mind can wander to. And I think it is a major contributor to the conclusion that mind wandering makes people unhappy, because Sure, if your mind wandering, if you're ruminating about negative problems in your life, and that's what your mind wandering, but that's going to cause you to be unhappy. And in fact, there was a famous paper in Science by a good friend of mine, Dan Gilbert in his then graduate student Killingsworth, where they basically entitled it wandering mind is an unhappy mind. And yes, it is, it is generally the case that if we ping people and ask them just now, will you mind wandering or not? And then also ask them? How happy were you? If their mind wandering on average, they're less likely to be happy. But a big part of that, if not all of that has to do with the fact that one major category of mind wandering is this negative rumination about problems and so on, and that's going to make you unhappy. One thing that we find is that if we ask people, How interesting was the mind wandering? And if they indicate that the mind wandering was particularly interesting, then they're actually happier. So we call we titled this paper, the silver lining of a mind in the clouds. And essentially not all mind wandering is created interest equally interesting mind wandering, seems to actually have a very different relationship to, to mood and is and is quite different, I would argue, from rumination.
Sucheta Kamath: By the way, very clever name, silver lining of the, you know, the mind in the cloud. So, so sorry, I'm gonna go back to this one point and to get clarification, are, did I so am I correct that if so, kinesthesia right, this time, mental time travel is an important thing that mind does. It can go forward, it can go backward, but You are researchers like us, such as yourself suggests that we are do thinking more about the future. So whether it's anticipation whether it's imagination, and and am I correct to think about rumination in that way that you're thinking about something from the past, particularly unfavorably, and that's why it becomes such a downer, right? Do you ruminate? Or rumination can be any direction?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Oh yeah, you can ruminate about the future as well, you can ruminate about worry about, I see I got this terrible thing is going to happen, this other terrible thing is going to happen, and so on. And so it can attend both about the past or the future. With regard to the content, we do find a lot of mind wandering takes place of focusing on the future. But it also depends on how demanding the primary task is. So if you're doing something, that's very easy, you're more likely to think about the future than if you're doing when you mind wander than if you're doing something that's more demanding. And this is likely because thinking about the future requires particular executive resources, because you're you're planning essentially, and that may be very useful, but it's harder to do when the demands are high.
Sucheta Kamath: And you know, what was so neat about the work you have done, all you do is it it really kind of was assuring, as I said to you that this, first of all, there are benefits to mind wandering, and we should not be discarding them, or particularly people who do or people who will look out looking out the window, we shouldn't really consider them as doing useless things or are being an unmotivated because they could be making connections for much larger purpose. So can you talk a little bit about the benefits or the the design, evolutionary reasons for why we might might be designed to mind wander?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Sure, well, I think that mind wandering builds on a mental capacity that the organisms have taken advantage of, for a very long time, which is that when there's a lot of demand that that's present, then you have to really focus all of your resources in one particular place. But when there's less demand, when you can sort of do multiple things, then you can simultaneously say graze while also going in a particular direction or, you know, keep track of prey potential predators, well, eating and so on. So so so it's kind of the the original multitasking, to take full advantage of the mental resources that we have, in terms of the benefits that that we've, that we've been exploring, a one is already come up, which is planning for the future. And there does seem to be evidence that, that people take opportunities in mind wandering to plan what they need to do next, and to figure out the their their short term goals, and sometimes even their long term goals. But one of the areas that I'm particularly interested in, is creativity. And so for example, in one study, we asked participants to at the end of every day, we looked at both creative writers and physicists, and at the end of every day, we asked them to indicate if they'd had a creative idea that day, and if they had, we asked them questions about the circumstances under which they had it. And we found that about 20% of the ideas that they had happen neither when they were at work, nor when they were not working, actively pursuing the problem, they would be doing, you know, taking a walk or paying the bills or whatever it was, and then their mind would wander spontaneously to this important idea. And what we found was that the ideas that people had, while they were mind wandering in this way, were as creative as the ones that they had at their desk. So it's you how many things can you do as you know, virtually as well, when you're doing something completely unrelated is when you're at your desk. And interestingly, we found that they were more likely to involve overcoming an impasse so it seemed mind wandering may be particularly targeted or particularly helpful for the kind of problems that you need to sleep on the kind of problems where you haven't been able to come up with a solution right away. And so the mind just sort of processes it behind the scenes possibly looks out in the environment for relevant information and then at some point drifts back to that with a new perspective.
Sucheta Kamath: And you know, as I was reading about about your work and and connecting to some some of the other guests I have had, I feel like this relates so much to prospective memory, this ability to remind yourself to remember to remember, requires you to kind of retrigger the memory trades that have you have created for future execution. But when do you do that intense tasks that demand a lot of attention and executive resources, you can do that. So during the mental semi downtime, you cannot just do a future time travel and say, Oh, I have to do that. And this and that as well. Right? So, yeah, go ahead.
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: No, go ahead.
Sucheta Kamath: No. So I was just wondering if if I see the good and the bad and the ugly of this mind wandering process right there, there are benefits. With this kind of mind, unchecked mind wandering can really be come with a high cost. So can you say a few things about that?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Yeah, well, I have to sell sell you that it has, it's been easier to demonstrate the costs of mind wandering, then the benefits? Because really, well, yeah, because you can see the costs right away. So if you're, say, reading an article, or a book and your mind wandering, what we've shown very easily is if your mind wandering, while you're reading, you're not understanding the material that you're reading as well. If your mind wandering, while you're in a lecture, you're not understanding the lecture as well, there's been research indicating I've been involved in some of this, if people are mind wandering, while driving, they're more likely to get in car accidents. And you know, just imagine what mind wandering if you're a surgeon, and all these other things are so because the mind wandering interferes with the task at hand, it's very easy to sort of assess that, that it's more challenging to assess the benefits, because the benefits are usually not immediate. You may be having your next great book idea, or something like that, or, or a new experiment, or whatever it is, but that's down the pike. And so it's much harder to assess those long term gains relative to the short term losses. And it seems like there is basically this trade off between mind wandering, taking you out of the present, potentially compromising whatever you're doing in the present, but potentially being helpful for the future.
Sucheta Kamath: So this brings us to this great question of who is the monitor who's monitoring this getting off track getting back on track, or need to get back on track, right? So in younger children's context, I feel like a lot of adults tend to tap on the shoulder, you know, snap fingers. But can you talk a little bit about this meta awareness that that we have that one, we know when we are paying attention or processing information, but when we realize we have stopped doing it, maybe a lot of time has been lost in between? But how does this mechanism work? And how do you study it?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: This is a great question. And it's actually one of the main things that got me interested in mind wandering in the first place, is when you're reading, we all know that you can't carry on a completely unrelated train of thought and simultaneously read the text that you're reading. And yet we all do it. We all have this experience of reading along and then suddenly realizing our minds have completely left the premises and are thinking about something completely unrelated. So for me, it was just a fascinating Why do people do this? And why do they do it so often? And the answer, at least in part, is exactly what you said that they have lost meta awareness of what's going on in their own minds. So I think this is a really interesting thing that you can be having an ongoing experience, very conscious in the experience, but not conscious of the experience. So your mind wandering, but you're not noticing that your mind wandering, your listeners who've tried meditating, and probably experienced this as well, you're trying to focus on the breath, you, you this is the whole point of this meditation exercise is to focus on the breath to keep your mind you know, and then you realize, who knows how long you've been thinking about all this if you've completely lost track of the breath, and then you have to bring yourself back. So I distinguish between experiential consciousness, which is whatever is occupying your mind from moment to moment, and mental awareness, which is that intermittent reflection process where you go, Oh, this is what's in my mind right now. I'm meant to be doing that. And so it seems that we have various different triggers that can cause meta awareness. One is, you know, obviously, if you have just driven off the road or something, you know, you get you get called on by the professor and you realize no idea what they're talking about, you know, so you can have external cues that bring you back and trigger meta awareness. You can have some sort of strategy where you remind yourself to check in periodically, or the thought may come sort of naturally that the thought that you were thinking about may come to an end and And then you sort of take stock about where where you were. It, it seems clear that meta awareness is a an important process that helps to monitor and control our mind wandering. So really developing our metacognitive skills. So we check in at the right time, and then maybe are more permissive with ourselves at other times, seems to be very important.
Sucheta Kamath: So it's so interesting. I wonder, you know, I've done 25 years I've been in this field working with people with brain injury, and then people with ADHD or a neurological developmental delays, where this capacity to the executive attention, you know, knowing what to pay attention to, and continuously being attention to that that matters is the most the biggest difficulty and metacognitive strategies is to one kind of make them aware that your mind does not stay on track. But second to create these guideposts. You know, it's like slap a stop sign on the travel, mind travel kind of road. And I'm curious to see what you think about this idea? Or do do you think failure can be a good monitoring system? Which is, you know, how, like, you read a paragraph, you realize, like, oh, I don't get it, I have not understood a word. So is that something a accidental natural pausing that brain does to say, I don't understand what I just did? Or is there an intentional way to kind of do some, some comprehension check in a different way?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Sure. So there are a couple things that are important here. One thing is, and you may have come across sort of the notion of the growth versus a fixed mindset, yes, and just the attitude that mind wandering is under your control seems to be very important. So in research, we found that some people are more inclined to believe that you can control mind wandering, and other people are less inclined to believe that and the more you think you can't control, mind wandering, the more your mind wander. But we find that when you just tell people that mind wandering can be controlled. And then if you further give them strategies to control their mind wandering, that that can be quite helpful that the combination of the two, the recognition that mind wandering is under your control and the availability of strategies to control the sort of a one two punch for getting your mind wandering under control. And two things that we found to be helpful is one, to really have them focus on their understanding to it, encourage them to be constantly sort of quizzing themselves, about what they're getting, and making sure they're understanding it. And the other one, and this is actually sort of my favorite, is because it's sort of more automatic, in a certain sense, is to encourage them to read with curiosity, to, to take advantage of the natural fact that we find that the more interested people are in something, the less they mind wander. So if you can so called a task, engage it with curiosity, that seems to be super helpful in helping you to stay on task still, to find the interesting angle on whatever you're doing. Why are you doing this? Why is this interesting? And then, if you read with that interest in mind, it'll keep you on track.
Sucheta Kamath: Jonathan, you can mic drop, and you can call it a day, amazing, amazing nugget of information. So I do have a question. So but there is also a relationship between those with growth mindset tend to have much more innocent relationship to their learning, or like childlike innocence. So they tend to be of those with curiosity and incredible inquisitiveness. And so those who so it's like a little bit of a, you know, circular loop there. Can we also make people curious?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Yes, well, this is a this is a big interest of mine. In fact, right now, we're working on developing an app to foster a curiosity. And we think that, that really the thing to do is to explore new experiences, and then to discover how rewarding that is. And so if you try something new, and it's a supportive, it sort of fosters open, this personality trait of openness to experience, and openness to experience is very, very closely related to curiosity. But the other thing that I think is very important, and this is something that we're still sort of formulating, but curiosity is all about asking questions, right? Hmm. And so if you pay attention to asking questions, you know, just really focus on what question Can I ask what other questions can I ask? So reading material, we're formulating questions, having conversations where you're formulating questions, taking the walk, formulating questions, just focusing on question asking, I think is a is a really cool idea. Not here's security, I'm going to, I'm going to give away an app idea that I think would be spectacular. Someone wants to follow up, and I'd appreciate you reaching out to me, but hey, steal it even because I think it's so cool. And that is, I think, develop an app that measured up the frequency with which people ask questions. So in the same way, you know, it could be like on your own just listens to intonation. So you could try to measure the frequency. And basically, you know, in the same way that you get pinged for a number of steps, How many questions did you ask? So I think that that's some of the things right now, what we're trying to do is to foster open openness and curiosity, but also mindfulness. And the idea is that there's actually a really beautiful bridge between openness. And let me also say that mindfulness has curiosity, sort of as part of it. But sometimes mindfulness and meditation techniques can be a little heavy handed, where if you're watching your mind all the time, and it's so mindfulness, sometimes it's not necessarily as playful as it as it might be. Openness to Experience is very playful, but at the same time, it can be associated with distractibility. It can with recklessness, perhaps with a lack of discernment in terms of leaving everything. So the ideas that come developing, cultivating both openness to experience, and mindfulness may really be this synergistic pair. And that's something that I'm calling open mindfulness.
Sucheta Kamath: Who I love that. I love that. And I think I'm wondering if you have heard the term choiceless awareness? Yeah. So I am going through my mindfulness meditation teacher training program, and it's a two year long, Tara Brach, and Jack Kornfield curriculum. And one of one as just like you described, you know, it's hard to define game. Mindfulness is also many types of mindfulness practices. But I think just witnessing your mind having capacity to engage in shenanigans isn't actually and then not reacting, is kind of the art of mindfulness. So I'm curious, how does this relate to this idea, particularly from social psychological coping mechanism that I am not my mind? So my mind creates these ideas, and tells these tall stories about how bad I am? Or how stupid I am? Or how, you know, incredibly reckless I am. But I am not that I'm like more than that. Isn't that an important aspect to control the rumination but also channel creativity like that openness, needs to be tied with something my belief about myself? So how do you how do they go together?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Well, I love this question. And one of my favorite bumper stickers is Don't believe everything you think. And I think that really captures the idea that you're saying here, one of the key perspective shifts that can arise when people engage in meditation is increasingly identifying with the witness with the listener, as opposed to with the speaker. And I think that very, very simple shift is very, very powerful. Because you you, I mean, we treat ourselves in ways that we would never treat other people, right. The names we call ourselves that, yes, really quite embarrassing of how we, how we, how we do this, and there's Kristin Neff has got a beautiful term self compassion, and, and cultivating self compassion, I think is is very important. And but one of the things is recognizing, that's just the chatter that's going on, in my mind, I don't necessarily endorse that particular perspective. And then bringing it back to creativity. One thing that creative individuals routinely report is the sort of experience of the muses that there that rather than feeling like they are the source of the idea, they're somehow channeling it that so they're witnessing their own mind coming up with all this stuff that that they're almost even sort of surprised about themselves. So I think that that that engaging in this witnessing perspective may be very helpful for for creativity and also for intellectual humility because you're you're recognizing that that that you are the lucky recipient of the whatever processing your brain is, is delivering to bring bring to mind so little bit less up sort of prideful authorship and more just sort of appreciated have a that incoming articulations narrative that comes through once my both for better or for worse, I think it'd be very helpful.
Sucheta Kamath: Oh, my goodness, I think it's almost sounds like channeling goodness. I mean, an avid having this deep belief that at the heart of we are all good people made of goodness, and then goodness can be channeled if you get out of your own way.
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: And although I think I think that we need to, I think, most all of us, certainly certainly myself, you know, there's dark stuff that comes that comes through, as well. And, and just recognizing that I don't need to endorse the darkness, that that comes through and, and recognize them. Yeah, that's their, their dark thoughts that they come through. But I'm not those are not the ones I want to endorse. So you can also have a discernment of a certain sort where there's some ideas where you go, I want to go down that rabbit hole, I really want to explore that idea. And then other ones were like, I'm just gonna let that one, I'm just gonna let it pass. It's almost like standing at a bus stop, and the bus stops and invites you in and you just wave it on and let the next bus go by.
Sucheta Kamath: I love that, you know, I was reading Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Ourselves again. And there was a researcher that he he talks about, I think, Bull and his colleagues, I don't remember exactly, but they studied these college students and homicidal thoughts. Apparently, every single person has had at least one homicidal thought and, and last month, so that just like, due to what you were just saying about the dark thoughts, I am not my thoughts is such an important exercise to engage in. But also you don't need to bottle that part of yourself, you know, and really look for the better part of yourself. So now, let me ask you about this idea about boredom. So what's the relationship between mind wandering and boredom? You know, I had James Danckert, and who has done a lot of work in this area. And his colleague, John Eastwood, and him say that, that, you know, boredom isn't too bad for us. In fact, we can use boredom to our advantage to motivate change. But boredom is a state where you don't want to do what you're doing, but you don't have other idea about what to do. And I wonder why in the state of boredom, then we are not using mind wandering to escape.
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Well, we have a paper that I wrote several years ago with the Ben Mooneyham, we specifically postulated that mind wandering is a valuable antidote for boredom. And in one study that we did with Ben Baird, we found that we gave people a very boring task. And I have to say that a lot of mind wandering research involves giving people very tedious tasks to do my apologies to all participants who've been in the studies. And oftentimes people are less happy at the end of the experiment than they are at the beginning. But what we found is that the more that people might wander during this boring task, the less unhappy they became. So the mind wandering seem to insulate them against the disruption and negative effect of the boredom. Personally, I'm rarely bored, because I find my mind wandering so. So in engaging and I engage in curious mind wandering, here's another one of my catchy or trying to be catchy terms. The curious mind wandering we call mind wandering.
Sucheta Kamath: Oh, I love that. Yes. Tell us more about it.
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Yeah. So basically, the idea is that if you find good material to mind wander about so things that you're really curious about things that excite you, this is mind wandering, and it's going to be associated with more positive mood, it's going to fuel creativity, and it will provide a great thing to do when you're in a boring situation. Just call up one of those cool topics that you'd like to think about to wonder about, and then just playfully explored, without necessarily you know, forcing yourself to stay on that topic wander onto something else wander onto something else, sort of engaging in a childlike wonder state where you playfully explore different ideas that you find interest
Sucheta Kamath: So what are your thoughts about I've heard you talk about this. But we are so busy. And when we are free, we are on our social media, or we are on our phone, and our phone is a incredible connection gateway to world's information. And that really should circuits this, you know, mind and brain left alone and intercepted. So is there something called mind wandering deficit or deficit or like just like sleep deprivation? Is their mind wandering deprivation?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: This is a great question. This is a topic that my colleague Paul Seelye and I at Paul's at Duke are investigating, I encourage you to reach out to me he's also a brilliant artist as well. And yes, this idea that we sort of have in the same way that we can experience dream, a night dreaming deficit, if we don't get enough sleep at night, we may get a may have a mind wandering deficit if we don't have enough opportunities for mind wandering. And we still sort of need to flesh this idea out. But I think it's got real potential. And I also think that finding the middle way with media is very important. So on the one hand, listening, and engaging in social media, listening to this podcast gives you a lot of opportunity, a lot of material for fruitful, mind wandering, but at the same time, if you don't give yourself the time to just process that and think about it, then you're not going to get the full benefit of it. So I think spend time engaging in social media, and particularly ones that aren't you find stimulating, but then also find time to just mind wander about that walking in nature is a particularly good place to engage in mind wandering and, you know, many great thinkers Darwin famously spent came up with many of his great ideas just wandering in or walking in nature. So yes, I think we have to be aware of the possibility that social media may cause a deficit of mind wandering, but also be appreciative of it, as an amazing source of fruitful topics to mind wander about.
Sucheta Kamath: You know, one of the wonderful authors I've read is Jenny Odell, you know How to Do Nothing is the greatest book I have ever read on this topic about, you know, resting it as she calls it, you know how to do nothing resting the attention economy, and you know, the concept of just birdwatching, or even accidentally discovering how doing nothing can be invaluable. But I think we are just not affording the opportunities, particularly our children. So, not a lot of your research focuses on children.
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Right. So we've done a few studies, but relatively few.
Sucheta Kamath: Can you talk a little bit about in places, you see that this information can be extrapolated to children? And can you talk a little bit about your work with the children that you have done?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Yeah, so the main thing that we did is we developed a mind wandering scale for children. And we found that, that they're also able to report their mind wandering in ways that are similar two adults, so they have the metacognitive capacity. And then there's also been research looking at mind wandering with attention deficit disorder, children and showing that indeed, as you might expect, they are particularly inclined to mind wandering, and this may be, yeah, they're part of the challenge, but it may also be part of their gift. And I do think that and innovation and innovation, I do think that the category of Attention Deficit Disorder is problematic, because although it does offer some particular challenges, it can also reflect a curious mind and an ability to sort of think out of the box. And there have been studies finding relationship between potential deficit, disorder and creativity. So I think that that's a very important thing. The other thing is that we have to be sort of careful on our definitions here. But we've been working in high schools with high school students who really struggle with mind wandering and also with the challenges of distraction from a social media. And this is research that's been spearheaded by my colleagues on Michael Mrazek and Alissa Mrazek brother, sister. And we've developed a app called Finding Focus, which is a now being used in high schools all around the country, and is a very entirely secular program that helps students to learn how they can control their attention, and directed in the way that they find where they where they want it to be. And it involves fun elements like rather than just silently meditating, they choose their musical genre, and they meditate to the music of their choice, and they also get to listen to the composers of the Music talking about the value of mindfulness is reinforcing this, this perspective.
Sucheta Kamath: So I know we have talked so much about mind wandering, which is task negative network, but we haven't spent any time talking about this task positive network. And I'm curious the mechanism of switch which is switching from engaged mind to disengaging into you know, wandering state, engage reining it back from wandering state back into task positive, intense focus. Is there a cost in this switching and what is responsible for this switching mechanism?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Yeah, so presumably, and there's been some research on this, but we need to do more presumably, these the switching back is driven by the executive network, perhaps. So complimented by the salience network versus sort of a noticing, and then a sort of forcing the mind back. And so there is there seems to be this, this give and take between the different networks. In one study that was spearheaded, again by Ben Mooneyham. We looked at the proportion of time that when people were engaging in mindful breathing following a six week intensive meditation and an additional element, retreat or not really retreat program. And we found that when people were had this experience, that they proportion of time that they were engaging in a task positive focus, where they were showing activation of the executive network and salience network and lack of connectivity with the default mode network was greater. So then the proportion both groups showed this sort of circling, but there was more time spent in the task positive space. So it seems that, that mindfulness may be in learning how to meditate, how to control your mind, may be one of the key antidotes for learning how to keep our minds more in the task positive place when we need to.
Sucheta Kamath: So as we come to the end of this discussion, I wanted to know, your experiments are so creative and clever. So where do you get those ideas? How do you channel your energy? And what kind of mind wandering states do you induce? Or how do you get there?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Yeah, I spend a lot of time anyway, anyone who knows me will, will say that I've come by my study of mind wandering, quite honestly, I spend a lot of time doing it. I love to take walks in nature, near my house about five minutes away is there's this beautiful I live in Santa Barbara, there's this beautiful area called the Douglas Preserve, which is about a mile a little bit more than that loop. And I just can all just circle it again. And again, and again. And just my mind drifts from topic to topic, a lot of times I'll have, you know, maybe eight or 10 different topics that I I'm interested in sort of touching on and I'll just see where, where they go. And I I try to intermittently be meta aware of my mind wandering. So if I realize that I've sort of disproportionately spent too much time on one topic, or I'll bump to another topic. And I'll also try to record my thoughts from time to time because one thing that I we do think is the case is that it's easy to forget ideas, when Yes, when your mind wandering so having a pad of paper or just saying into your phone can be very useful. One slightly bright side on this is that we find that the ideas that people have, when their mind wandering, are more likely to be associated with an aha experience. And that aha experience may be functional, in one way, maybe functional, it's like an alerting you just had a good idea. They're really trying to remember it. So if particularly if you have an aha experience, well mind wandering, I encourage you to use that as is your body's brain's natural indication to remind you to find a way to remember it.
Sucheta Kamath: Can I then consult you here for a second? Because so I'm tripping over my own jotting down of ideas rather than letting them free flow with a fear that I'll never capture them again. So I guess what, what you're saying if it is really remarkable, the self discovery, it will circle back or it will stay there longer. Is that what you're saying?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Well, yeah, so I did. I think it's sort of a balance. I think it's really a tricky thing. I think that I do think that The biggest ideas that you have will be marked with ahas and will likely be remembered. But I suspect that there may be some pretty good middle ground ideas that that could be forgotten. I certainly had the experience of having an idea and then realizing I've had this idea before.
Sucheta Kamath: You're like, Oh, wow. It's so funny. Yes, I find that, you know, sometimes I'm like, giddy over my an idea that I have come up with only to discover that not only I have thought it, I have talked about it. Come on. So, um, so last, again, one more thing, as I was thinking, as you're discussing this, so is this better pursued as a solo journey? Like, is this something you should do by yourself and not do? Like, I do a lot of part listening. And while I'm walking or doing, which is kind of really keeping my mind occupied, or walk with friends, so this is a solo journey, you think?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: I know, I think that both are good, and possibly in different ways. And we're very interested, we're also looking at the way in which conversations can contribute to creativity. And there's one other thing that we're currently looking into, which I think may be quite useful. A little bit embarrassing, but it shouldn't be. And so this, we're trying to maybe even change the culture is that I think that mind wandering out loud, may have a particular beneficial qualities, because for one thing, we think it may help you sort of maintain a slightly more coherent, a train of thought it may make your what your mind wandering about more, more memorable. And so we are currently doing studies looking at the relative value of mind wandering silently versus out loud. And we're hoping that we may actually find that there's real value in it and that talking to yourself is not as bad as its laid out. To me, I think people are afraid that they appear to be scared or
Sucheta Kamath: Insane.
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: One good trick is you just pick up your phone and just start talking all of a sudden, now this is perfectly legit. I don't seem crazy anymore. I don't have that. And if you want record it, and then you can listen to it and discover things that you might not have even realized you had had said. So yeah, I think all different kinds of free thought may have real value and in different ways.
Sucheta Kamath: Well, brilliant, Jonathan, it this is such a deep and meaningful conversation. Thank you for sharing your incredible wisdom with us. And particularly, I feel like this was my personal consultation. So I hope you didn't feel that you get, you know, took all that energy and spent on me, but many people are going to benefit. So before I let you go, can you share with us some of three books that have? Or maybe one or two doesn't matter, but books that you found quite meaningful or interesting or informative, that have shaped your thought process?
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Sure. Let's see. There is a lovely book by John Coonios and Mark Beeman. Oh, I'm not going to get the title. It's something like the AHA factor or something like that. It's on the nature of insight. And it's really a outstanding review of the research on, on creativity. And I think it's a it's really a very, very helpful sort of summary of our capacity for creative insights. Our Better Angels, as as you mentioned by Steven Pinker, I, I love that book, I think that it really gives us a optimistic outlook on the the nature of humanity and the direction that it is, it is taken. And then I'll just throw out one, which is like one of my all time favorite books, which is a book by very different, but I still really love it and it's by Alan Watts. It's one of his first books, it's called The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who We Are. And that book had a huge impact on me, actually, I read it as a teenager, and it really sort of set me in many ways on the path that I find myself today.
Sucheta Kamath: Oh, lovely. I have not read I haven't read many Alan Watts books, but I haven't read this one. So that's gonna be my first go and get them and we will post the other show links to the other three books. You mentioned. Jonathan once again. Thank you for being here today and informing us and people, as you're listening to this be assured your mind wandering is never going to waste. But there is a way to channel it. And I think I'm going to listen to your episode multiple times to get all the nuggets of information. So thank you for joining. And thank you for being here. And everybody, if you love what you're listening to share with your friends and family and give us a review. And definitely tune back in next week for another fantastic episode of Full PreFrontal. Thank you.
Jonathan Schooler, Ph.D.: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure being here. And if you're interested in finding out more about the lab, if you Google Meta Lab at UCSB, you'll find lots of papers and other material describing the work we're doing. Thank you for inviting me. It's been a real pleasure.
Sucheta Kamath: Thank you.