Mind Wandering is Negatively Associated with Attention and Academic Success
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Mind-wandering–related deficits in performance have been observed in many contexts, most notably reading, tests of sustained attention, and tests of aptitude.” – Sara Briggs
We spend a tremendous amount of waking time with our minds wandering and not on the present environment or the task at hand. We daydream, plan for the future, review the past, ruminate on our failures, exalt in our successes. In fact, we spend almost half of our waking hours off task with our mind wandering. Mindfulness is the antithesis of mind wandering. When we’re mindful, we’re paying attention to what is occurring in the present moment. In fact, the more mindful we are the less the mind wanders and mindfulness training reduces mind wandering.
You’d think that if we spend so much time with the mind wandering it must be enjoyable. But, in fact research has shown that when our minds are wandering, we are actually less happy than when we are paying attention to what is at hand. There are times when mind wandering may be useful, especially in regard to planning and creative thinking. But, for the most part, it interferes with our concentration on the present moment and what we’re doing and makes us unhappy. There is budding research interest in studying mind wandering and its effects upon academic success.
In today’s Research News article “Trait-Level Variability in Attention Modulates Mind Wandering and Academic Achievement.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7271744/ ) In the first of two experiments, Pereira and colleagues recruited participants online and had them complete measures of overall grade point average, levels of mind wandering, effortful control, orienting sensitivity, and negative emotions. They found that mind wandering was reported to occur 19% of the time. They found that the higher the levels of mind wandering, the lower the levels of effortful control and extraversion, but higher levels of negative emotions. They also found that for participants low in effortful control that mind wandering was associated with lower academic performance while for those high in effortful control mind wandering was associated with better academic performance.
In the first experiment they used a self-report measure of mind wandering. In the second experiment they employed an objective measure of mind wandering. They recruited college students and had them complete the same measures as in the first experiment. They then tested them with a visual metronome (tracking) task where response variation is an objective measure of mind wandering. Similar to experiment 1 they found that the higher the levels of mind wandering, the lower the levels of effortful control.
The results suggest that one of the key associations of mind wandering is with lower effortful control. Effortful control is a measure of the ability to focus attention. The measure involves agreement with statements such as “I can keep performing a task even when I would rather not do it.” Since the results are correlational it cannot be determined if mind wandering lowers effortful control or if effortful control lowers mind wandering. It will require a manipulative study to determine this. Regardless, the results suggest that mind wandering and effortful control are negatively related and that high effortful control appears to counteract the negative effect of mind wandering on academic performance.
Mindfulness training has been shown to be associated with lower mind wandering and better academic performance. It would be interesting to investigate the ability of mindfulness training to produce changes in effortful control and mind wandering and their relationship with academic performance.
So, mind wandering is negatively associated with attention and academic success.
“mind wandering is related to lecture comprehension, reading, general academic ability, problem solving, and future planning.” – Amy Pachai
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Pereira, E. J., Gurguryan, L., & Ristic, J. (2020). Trait-Level Variability in Attention Modulates Mind Wandering and Academic Achievement. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 909. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00909
Although mind wandering remains ubiquitous in daily life, the processes that underlie and sustain this behavior remain poorly understood. Across two experiments, we studied the role of intrinsic temperament traits, which shape stable behavioral processes, in moderating the association between mind wandering and the real-life functional outcome of academic success. In Experiment 1, participants completed the Mind Wandering Questionnaire, the Adult Temperament Questionnaire, and reported their grade for the highest degree completed or in progress. Individuals with traits of low Effortful control, high Negative affect, and low Extraversion indicated more mind wandering. Effortful control moderated the relationship between mind wandering and academic success, with higher tendency for mind wandering associated with higher academic achievement for individuals with high Effortful control, and lower academic achievement for those with low Effortful control. Experiment 2 confirmed these links using the visual metronome response task, an objective measure of mind wandering. Together, these results suggest that the intrinsic temperament trait of Effortful control represents one of the key mechanisms behind the functional influence of mind wandering on real-life outcomes. This work places an innate ability to control attention at the very core of real life success, and highlights the need for studying mind wandering through an interdisciplinary lens that brings together cognitive, biological, social, and clinical theories in order to understand the fundamental mechanisms that drive this behavior.