Science of Mindfulnessmind-wandering

I am preparing to co-deliver the Level 4: Wisdom training with Choden in December and part of what we will be sharing is the latest neuroscience research and what it has to say about the processes involved in thinking. So, you might find this blog heading in that direction over the next couple of months.

This week I am reviewing a paper by Irving & Glasser (2019) on Mind-wandering: A Philosophical Guide. Mind wandering is equated to what philosophers call stream of consciousness, including “thoughts, images, bits of inner speech that dance across the inner stage”.

In psychology mind wandering is understood to be task-unrelated and/or stimulus-independent thought. It is measured in psychology research by ‘thought sampling’, eg. asking participants to classify their experience as task related or unrelated, either during an experiment or in their daily lives. Irving and Glasser point out however that mind wandering can be task oriented, but just not oriented to the task at hand. It can also be stimulus dependent, as for example, when a sound or smell triggers a train of wandering thought.

One theory defines mind wandering as a passive mode of thought, ie. unintentional, however, Irving & Glasser point out that sometimes we might decide to allow our minds to wander. Another theory defines it as thoughts that cannot be vetoed and that lack meta-awareness, ie. you cannot voluntarily stop a train of thought that you are unaware of having and you are only aware of mind wandering after the fact. Irving & Glasser point out that sometimes we are aware of our mind wandering while it is in a wandering state.

In mindfulness meditation we are practicing noticing when the mind has wandered away from the present moment and bringing it back to the present. This is the main meditation instruction and with practice we get better at it. We are often aware of the wandering as it is happening, especially when the mind first starts to wander or as we become more practiced meditators.

Irving & Glasser go on to discuss a more dynamic definition of mind wandering, as disunified thinking, in which thoughts involved in mind wandering are not unified under a common goal. However, we might be volitionally thinking about one goal and then another goal, over a very short period of time. This would qualify as disunified thought, but is not mind wandering.

Irving & Glasser are keen to find a definition of mind wandering that this distinguishes between mind wandering and rumination. Mind wandering moves from one subject to another, whereas rumination stays fixed on a particular subject of emotional importance.

Irving & Glasser prefer a definition of mind wandering as “unguided attention”. Unguided in the sense that thinking is not guided back onto task. When the mind wanders we do not “feel pulled back”, “it meanders from topic to topic because it is not guided to remain in place”. They argue that this definition solves some of the problems with the definitions discussed above and that this definition of mind wandering can be empirically researched. So, mind wandering defined this way is:

 

distinct from goal directed task unrelated thoughts, which is guided by the goal;
distinct from rumination which is emotionally guided;
can be related to a task but quickly wanders on;
can be related to a perceptual stimulus, but quickly wanders on;
can be intentional and we can be aware of it (meta-aware); and
is distinct from goal-oriented thinking that moves from task to task.

 

Irving & Glasser then relate their definition of unguided attention to neuroscience research related to the medial-temporal default sub-network (DN), which is a large scale neural network in the human brain that generates a stream of memories and imaginings. When we are on task, control networks in the brain exert top down control on the DN so that the stream of memories and imaginings are on topic. Without this top down control, mind wandering ensues.

Irving & Glasser describe how unguided thought is experimentally measurable and that participants in research can be trained to distinguish between task unrelated thoughts, stimulus independent thoughts and unguided thoughts. Interestingly, they report that unguided thoughts tracked a psychological state of happiness, in sharp contrast to rumination.

Experiments indicate that about half of our waking thoughts are occupied in mind-wandering, so it is an important process to understand. This large amount of mind wandering also suggests that mental agency (free will) is less pervasive than many of us assume (see my earlier blog on free will).

Through philosophical history, mind-wandering has been classified as “an ill to avoid”. It has been argued that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind, which would certainly apply to emotionally guided attention, such as rumination, but possibly not to mind wandering defined as unguided attention. It has been argued that mind wandering can foster creativity and mental exploration, which allows us to explore parts of our conceptual space that would be ignored during focussed goal-directed thinking.

This then leads to Irving & Glasser’s next question on how can we be held responsible, and so attract praise or blame, for the consequences of mind wandering when it is a passive occurrence. They conclude that the driver could and should take responsibility for guiding their attention when doing something as potentially dangerous as driving, hence their distracted driving can attract blame. Similarly, we might praise the scholar who gains a significant insight through unguided thinking for being preoccupied with their subject.

Irving & Glasser conclude that this is an embryonic field of research.

Having read the Irving & Glasser, I thought to relate their discussion to mind wandering in meditation practice.

In mindfulness meditation we don’t make a distinction between mind wandering that is rumination and mind wandering that is unguided attention. We tend to characterise mind wandering as a process of losing contact with the present moment, ie. a process of losing meta-awareness and becoming distracted. Our practice is to notice when we are distracted and then to bring ourselves back into the present moment. To begin with we guide our attention back to a support in the present moment, such as sensations of breathing. We focus partially on the breathing to support us in remaining aware of mental activity in the present. Therefore, mindfulness meditation is a training in cultivating meta-awareness, so that we can become aware of the activity of the mind as it is happening, rather than becoming engaged in the activity of the mind, which involves a loss of meta-awareness. Through mindfulness meditation we are engaged in a process of familiarising ourselves with the activity of the mind, including the activity of “unguided attention”.

In mindfulness meditation we strengthen our meta-awareness and in compassion meditation we cultivate an attitude of kindness towards the mental activity revealed by meta-awareness. This is in preparation for insight practice which creates the conditions to recognise the underlying psychological processes giving rise to our mental activity.

The key meditation of our Level 3 Insight course is resting in the midst, which is sometimes called choiceless awareness. In this practice we let go of the support, such as sensations of breathing and we are simply present and open to what is happening, including the wandering mind or the “thoughts, images, bits of inner speech that dance across the inner stage” without agenda. This sounds to me like unguided attention with meta-awareness and results in an exploration of parts “of our conceptual space that would be ignored during focussed goal-directed thinking”. It creates the conditions for insight to arise into our underlying psychological processes, which if held in an atmosphere of acceptance and kindness, leads to psychological healing.

When I sit in resting in the midst and my mind is quite settled, I get a sense of thoughts coming and going in a fairly random way. I sometimes characterise it as the default mode network sparkling away. Now I have another term of “unguided attention” to describe this phenomenon.

People often ask me how I manage to get such a lot done in my work and life. My answer is that I don’t think too much about it. Anything that I have to do I just drop into the mind and leave it alone to mull. It meanders around in the back of the mind, as I go about my day and other tasks. Then, in due course, a response emerges of its own accord and then I know what to do. The response that emerges generally has far more perspective and understanding to it than anything that I could actively think up and it would take time and effort to actively think about it. Also, when the mind is mulling in this way, I feel quite happy. Interestingly, I feel quite reassured on reading this paper, that it is “unguided attention” that I am experiencing in these moments, and that it may well be beneficial.

References

Irving & Glasser, 2019 – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/phc3.12644