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March 29, 2012
Are You Absent-Minded or Easily Distracted? You May Have A Better Working Memory

Do you zone out a lot at work, school or anytime for that matter? We all do it. We've all been disciplined for not paying attention at one time or another. Although some of us more than others, and I'll admit I fall into this category. A new study investigating the mental processes underlying a wandering mind reports a role for working memory, a sort of a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously.

In recent years a number of academicians have ventured into this previously unexplored territory, trying to figure out why our minds wander while we're supposed to be paying attention. They were probably spurred on by the blank faces of their students during their stimulating lectures. But despite considerable interest in determining precisely why we zone out so often, scientists have been a bit unclear why we do it.

A 2009 University of British Columbia study confirmed that while daydreaming, the brain recruits complex regions of the brain, including the "executive network," which is associated with complex problem solving and which, as the "executive" moniker indicates, is the command center of the brain. Prior to this study, it was thought that the executive network was the exclusive problem-solving region and that mind wandering and daydreaming did not involve the "executive network." But this study debunked that theory.

"This is a surprising finding, that these two brain networks are activated in parallel," said the study's lead researcher Kalina Christoff . "Until now, scientists have thought they operated on an either-or basis--when one was activated, the other was thought to be dormant."

The latest study comes from the University of Wisconsin, where psychologists Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson say they have uncovered the mental processes that take place while our minds wander. Their study, published in the current issue of Psychological Science, indicates our working memory -- the part of our memory system that guides us through our daily chores, from remembering where you left the car keys to telling the difference between a red light and a green light -- lets us simultaneously juggle multiple thoughts.

Imagine you see your neighbor upon arriving home one day and schedule a lunch date. On your way to add it to your calendar, you stop to turn off the drippy faucet, feed the cat, and add milk to your grocery list. The capacity that allows you to retain the lunch information through those unrelated tasks is working memory.

Participants in the study had to either press a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or tap in time with their breath. The researchers checked periodically to ask if their minds were wandering.

“We intentionally use tasks that will never use all of their attention,” Smallwood explains, “and then we ask, how do people use their idle resources?”

At the end, they measured the participants’ working memory capacity, giving them a score for their ability to remember a series of letters interspersed with easy math questions.

Levinson said those with higher working memory capacity reported ‘more mind wandering during these simple tasks’ even though their performance was not compromised. In both tasks, there was a clear correlation.

The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.

“What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” Smallwood says.

Interestingly, when people were given a comparably simple task but filled with sensory distractors (such as lots of other similarly shaped letters), the link between working memory and mind wandering disappeared.

“Giving your full attention to your perceptual experience actually equalized people, as though it cut off mind wandering at the pass,” Levinson says.

Working memory capacity has previously been correlated with general measures of intelligence, such as reading comprehension and IQ score. The current study underscores how important it is in everyday situations and offers a window into the ubiquitous -- but not well-understood -- realm of internally driven thoughts.

“Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life -- when they’re on the bus, when they’re cycling to work, when they’re in the shower -- are probably supported by working memory,” says Smallwood. “Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems.”

In essence, working memory can help you stay focused, but if your mind starts to wander those resources get misdirected and you can lose track of your goal. Many people have had the experience of arriving at home with no recollection of the actual trip to get there, or of suddenly realizing that they’ve turned several pages in a book without comprehending any of the words.

“It’s almost like your attention was so absorbed in the mind wandering that there wasn’t any left over to remember your goal to read,” Levinson says.

The latest study underscores how important working memory is in allowing the brain to focus on the most pressing issues.

April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.



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