I’ve been reflecting on a news item last week, reporting that people are easily distracted. With wonderful pseudo-scientific accuracy, the research population in question ‘spent 46.9% of their time awake with their minds wandering’. The headline called this ‘daydreaming’, although it appears to actually mean thinking about something other than the task in hand. A psychologist friend tells me daydreaming is when the mind wanders of its own accord and is subject to random thoughts, whereas more systematic thinking about something else, such as what to have for supper, is just ‘thinking about something else’. Anyway, for me they both come into the general category of ‘not paying attention’.
At first I wasn’t prepared to take the research at all seriously, as it was carried out on possibly the least scientifically credible sample population ever: volunteer iPhone users. But apparently other research has also found high levels of mind-wandering. Surely this doesn’t surprise anyone – iPhone user or not.
I find both daydreaming and ‘thinking about something else’ to be extremely beneficial. I’ve had some of my best ideas through staring into space at conferences and meetings, or on public transport. It’s also true that problems get solved by allowing ideas to develop when doing something else. Perhaps this happens more than it used to and perhaps my attention span is being shortened by the internet and modern life in general, but the results are not necessarily bad. In fact, the ability to switch off when something is of little interest is good time management, surely.
I’d be interested to know who indulges most in mental multi-tasking. Men or women? Young or old? Richer or poorer? Busy or idle? Single or not? And what are the subjects of daydreaming? Is it more common to be distracted by thoughts of what has happened in the past, or by plans for the future?
One distinction was reported. Apparently, people who don’t pay attention are unhappier than people who do. This puzzles me. Surely mind-wandering is a great opportunity for both creativity and self-preservation. One of the researchers says ‘our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present’. That statement opens up fascinating new possibilities for understanding how we make sense of the world and how we cope with it.
Update: The Abandoned Bicycle has reflected further on this topic