Wellbeing column: A wandering mind is an asset!

Concentration is an important skill, but a wandering mind can also be turned into a strength. This is what Jenni Virtanen, a student coach at Haaga-Helia, reflects on.

Jenni Virtanen
News article

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Does this sound familiar: You’re listening to a lecture or reading a textbook and suddenly you realize that your thoughts are somewhere else, and you don't remember anything you just heard or read? In these situations, we easily start blaming our poor concentration and try to force our thoughts back to the task. 

Concentration is a great thing: we achieve important goals and feel pleasure when things get done. But in these times, when concentration seems to be a dwindling natural resource, it may be comforting to hear that mind wandering can also be a good thing! I argue that, when done right, running thoughts are a resource that can increase creativity, well-being and ultimately make us better at concentrating.

By mind wandering (stream of thoughts, daydreaming, etc.) I mean the free flow of thoughts without a specific goal or plan. Whereas a focused mind directs attention to a certain thing and tries to keep it there, a wandering mind can move freely from one thought to another. Now I don't mean mind wandering as jumping from task to task or screen to screen, which hardly increases anyone's well-being. But rather voluntary stream of thoughts when we don't try to feed our mind with any specific stimulus. 

When we let our thoughts run free we often imagine the future and create different scenarios. Sitting on the bus, we might dream of a summer vacation, in the lecture we wonder what to eat in the evening and in the evening while eating we think about the next day's course presentation. Taking care of this natural feature of ours can have many benefits:

A wandering mind is a prerequisite for creativity

A wandering mind, imagining the future, combines experiences and information in our memory in a new way and creates new connections between things. And this is an absolute prerequisite for creativity. Creativity thus requires mind wandering and wandering increases the possibility of new ideas and thoughts. Studying also requires creativity, so new thoughts should be given space.

Values and direction become clearer

What would you do if you won 10 million in the lottery tomorrow? Mind wandering in such dreams can help clarify what is important to us and what goals to set in life. If as a lottery winner you would took your whole family on a vacation, maybe it tells you that close people and spending time with them is important to you and you don't need 10 million to do so.

Better relationships

Dreaming and imagining can also be used to create better relationships. Your mind drifts to imagine a date or disagreement with a friend. What would you say, how would the situation go, how would it feel? Practicing conversations in your mind can make it easier to act constructively in the real situation and imagining positive emotions can make them arise in real life as well.

More relaxed life

Letting your thoughts run free can also relax you. We get a moment's break from problem solving and task orientation and the mind gets to recover from the study load. The information load of our environment can be a lot, so on your next break you might want to try immersing yourself in your thoughts instead of looking at your phone. Possibly something much more entertaining content can be found inside your head.

Finally

This human feature, which may be easily perceived as a weakness, can be harnessed for good. If you want to feed your mind wandering, try:

  • Go for a walk without headphones.

  • When you notice your thoughts wandering during your studies, move your gaze away from the screen and just observe what kind of thoughts your mind produces

  • When you are in a good mood, give space for positive thoughts. Savor them!

  • When you notice yourself planning or creating ideas, don’t interrupt your thoughts but see what follows from them. Freely flowing thoughts are at the core of creativity.

 

During the writing of this column, the thought wandered 12 times. The Pomodoro -technique has been used to help with concentration.

Contact
Jenni
Virtanen
opintovalmentaja
Study Coach
jenni.virtanen@haaga-helia.fi