“Sometimes you just want to let your mind go free,” says Julia Kam, a cognitive neuroscientist who directs the Internal Attention Lab at the University of Calgary. Kam became interested in her subject 15 years ago as an undergraduate struggling with her own distracted thoughts during lectures. “I came into the field wanting to find a cure,” she says. But the deeper she got into research, the more she came to appreciate the freedom of an unfocused mind. “When your thoughts are just jumping from one topic to the next without an overarching theme or goal, that can be very liberating,” she says.
Researchers have found that people spend up to 50 percent of their time mind-wandering. Some internal thinking can be detrimental, especially the churning, ruminative sort often associated with depression and anxiety. Try instead to cultivate what psychologists call freely moving thoughts. Such nimble thinking might start with a yearning to see your grandmother, then careen to that feeling you get when looking down at clouds from an airplane, and then suddenly you’re pondering how deep you’d have to bore into the earth below your feet before you hit magma. Research suggests that people who do more of that type of mind-wandering are happier.
Facilitate unconstrained thinking by engaging in an easy, repetitive activity like walking; avoid it during riskier undertakings like driving. You’ll find it harder to go free-ranging if you’re myopically worried about something in your personal life, like an illness or an argument with a spouse.
For a recent study, Kam hooked subjects up for an electroencephalogram and then had them do a mundane task on a keyboard while periodically asking them about their thoughts. She was able to see, for the first time, a distinct neural marker for freely moving thoughts, which caused an increase in alpha waves in the brain’s frontal cortex. This is the same region where scientists see alpha waves in people doing creative problem-solving. We live in a culture that values work and productivity over almost everything else, but remember, your mind is yours. Make space to think in idle ways unrelated to tasks. “It can replenish you,” Kam says.
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