It happens when you’re listening to good music at the opera. It also happens while waiting for the traffic light to turn green. It may be happening right now. And you don’t even know it. You are perhaps daydreaming. Also known as mind wandering, daydreaming is the inability to stay in the present.
You also might be weighing the odds of ‘mind-wandering’ as a problem. It is a great start. A 2006 study by the National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH] indicates that in the United States alone approximately 57 million adults are affected by mental and behavioural health conditions. Therefore, People, whose minds frequently wander, may start to wonder if the condition is a symptom of mental illness.
The working memory of humans is similar to the random access memory (RAM) of a computer. Both parts function to ascertain the routine completion of tasks. Hence, you will accomplish daily goals in your professional and personal life when you have an excellent working memory. Additionally, working memory enhances the level of focus and concentration in humans.
How free and constrained thoughts can trigger mental illness
The point of focus of the mind is prone to lateral shift. This is because the same mind notices another thing while trying to concentrate on another task. For many people, unhappiness stems from spending long hours in thinking about something that bears no semblance with what they are doing. Momentarily, the mind spreads its focus among several ideas, shifting from one to the other. Other times, the mind keeps revolving round a particular idea due to a feeling of anxiety and other emotions. It is crucial to understand what causes a free flow of thoughts and what causes constrained thoughts. “Mind-wandering is typically characterized as thoughts that stray from what you’re doing,” said Kalina Christoff, a lead author of a University of British Columbia-led review of mind-wandering research, published by the Nature Reviews Neuroscience. But we believe this definition is limited in that it doesn’t capture the dynamics of thought. Sometimes the mind moves freely from one idea to another, but at other times it keeps coming back to the same idea, drawn by some worry or emotion. Understanding what makes thought free and what makes it constrained is crucial because it can help us understand how thoughts move in the minds of those diagnosed with mental illness.
Automatic and deliberate constraints are two mechanisms that curtail the spontaneous movement of thoughts in mind. For instance, dreaming and creativity are examples of spontaneous activities. From statistical knowledge, dreaming is a medium to low automatic constraints. Also, it has a proven association with minimal or no deliberate constraints. However, creative thinking features a constant shift of the thought process between automatic and deliberate constraints. For instance, deliberate constraint ensures that a writer strictly adheres to the rules of writing or grammar.
The Biggest Source of Unhappiness Is Mind-Wandering
In 2016, Kalina Christoff, a professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, released a publication on mind-wandering. Compiled from over 200 journals, the review is an extensive study of neuroscientific traits. From the book, the author suggests that mind-wandering is a state of mind in a spontaneous mode. However, Zachary Irving, the co-author of the review, states that the concept of mind-wandering would play a significant role in mental illness. This is because the framework of the concept can be the solution to understanding patients with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), anxiety and depression. These are typical examples of an extension of the normal thinking variation.
Furthermore, the review suggests that the mind is an amalgamation of:
- ADHD mind – which enables creative thinking, and
- The anxious mind – which enhances the concentration on events that are of utmost importance to the individual
Statistics published by Science show that people spend about 46.9 percent of their time in bed thinking about things that are different from what they are engaged in. Hence, the mind can nurture a lack of something which promotes the feeling of unhappiness.
“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Ways to Treat Mind-Wandering and Mental Disorders
The increase in the number of people suffering from mind wandering is alarming. While some people believe the ailment is treatable, a large number of people do not. That is why it is necessary to increase the awareness regarding the treatment of the disorder. Talk therapy and mindfulness are proven methods of treating mind wandering.
This involves becoming more alert to the unending passing stream of thoughts, sensations, images, and emotions, without identifying oneself with them. This practice helps to develop a non-reactive state of mind (which of course, is the foundation for a calm and peaceful state of consciousness). Instead of narrowing concentration or focus, the individual becomes alert to the entire field of consciousness.
The benefits of mindfulness are twofold. It has all the advantages of mind purification which results in increased unconditional love, equanimity, sympathetic joy, and compassion. This form of meditation leads to tranquility and insight. Practicers of meditation should be free of desires and expectations. When we turn inward, we realize that the internal environment of mental associations and emotional patterns often stress the mind.
Burning the candle at both ends
Meditation is the antidote to stress and stress is the exact opposite of meditation. Many anti-stress techniques are about the diversion of the mind (some sort of escapism). Meditation, however, addresses the root cause of the problem.
Stress is unavoidable but our reaction to it lies with us. The mind faces different types of stress, such as physical, emotional, or psychological. Psychological stress is in the form of pain, anxiety, fear, apprehension and lack of sleep.
A lot of times, stress is the result of:
- Dissociation from what you like and association with what you dislike
- A high occurrence of dislikes and low frequency of likes
- Not getting what you want
Due to lack of understanding and the inability to tackle stress, one tries to engage in activities, such as watching TV, listening to music, engaging in gossip, or indulge in some kind of dependencies like coffee, tea, tobacco, or tranquilizers. On the contrary, one may engage in prayer, chanting, or breathing exercises. This is just escapism and not the right solution. Some methods of managing include yoga, meditation, time management, and therapy.