I have a long-time client – let’s call her Liza – who works for a big entertainment company, and the other day she complained about how challenging it is to manage the deluge of emails that flood her BlackBerry every day. “You can’t read every line, you’d never get through all your mail; so you end up scanning for key words. In fact, my boss refuses to read anything constructed in complete sentences.”
Liza says she’s often distracted, and has to take medication to manage her anxiety. She even says she can’t read books anymore because they’re composed of huge obstacles: paragraphs. “It’s driving me insane. The only way I can rest my brain is to sit at Starbucks and daydream for fifteen minutes.” Such is the cost of modern digital life. But, it turns out, daydreaming might not offer as much stress relief as Liza thinks.
Harvard researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert recently published a report in the journal Science on the trait of “mind wandering”, or “stimulus-independent thought”, defined as “thinking about what is not going on [around you], contemplating events in the past, [what] might happen in the future, or will never happen at all.” In a creative bid to employ digital technology to determine the effects of real time daydreaming in daily life on mood, Killingsworth and Gilbert used a novel application downloaded to subjects’ iPhones. Samples were analyzed from people in the United States (n= 2250, mean age 34) who were contacted via their iPhones at random times throughout the day to be posed questions from 3 categories: 1. “How are you feeling right now?”; 2. “What are you doing right now?”; and “Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?” The answers were recorded in an online database, and the analysis is fascinating.
People’s minds wandered frequently, fully 46% of the all samples; 30% of the samples showed mind wandering in every activity except for sex (good news for people who fear their partner’s fantasizing about someone else). In addition, it was clear that people were less happy when their minds drifted than when they didn’t, even though they were more likely to wander to pleasant topics than to unpleasant or neutral topics. And, they were no happier dreaming about pleasant topics than they were when attending to their current activity. While negative moods are known to cause mind wandering, time-lag analysis strongly suggested that a drifting mind was the cause, and not the consequence of, unhappiness.
What’s a modern info-overloaded spacehead to do? Mindfulness meditation might point to a possible remedy. A study recently published in the Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine by researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine compared college students who were given brief mindfulness meditation instruction (20” during three consecutive days), ‘sham’ meditation, or who were assigned as controls, to see the effects on stressed mood. The mindfulness meditation group showed the most improvement with an 88% drop in stressed mood compared to only a 32% drop in the sham meditators, while the control group exhibited no change at all. Not bad.
As for Liza, I advised her to power off her cell phone and savor that cup of coffee.