Working Memory And The Wandering Mind

working memory and wandering mind

mind wandering

A new study indicates that people with a higher working memory capacity can use that excess capacity to turn their mind to other things.

Published in the journal Psychological Science by Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, the study paints working memory as a mental workspace that can house multiple thoughts simultaneously.

Asking participants to perform one of two simple tasks — either pressing a button in response to the appearance of a particular letter on a display, or tapping in time with their breath — the researchers monitored how often the subjects’ minds went wandering.

“People with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these simple tasks,” says Levinson; test performance was not compromised.

“When circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” Smallwood adds.

In contrast, introducing distractions (such as lots of other similarly shaped letters), reduced the tendency for mind wandering.

Working memory capacity correlates highly to overall intelligence and academic performance. The study highlights the importance of working memory in everyday life and once again points to the value of working memory training.

“Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life — when they’re on the bus, when they’re cycling to work, when they’re in the shower — are probably supported by working memory,” says Smallwood. “Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems.”

The results don’t mean that people with high working memory capacity are necessarily afflicted with a straying mind. Working memory can also be used to stay focused. “If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too,” Smallwood adds.

Levinson is now studying how working memory training affects wandering thoughts, seeking to understand how people can control it.


One Response to “Working Memory And The Wandering Mind”

  1. cristina.p says:

    Interesting article. Mind wandering is becoming a problem to me because it’s difficult to control it and steals much of my time. I would like to know more about how the working memory training can help me in this matter. So keep me posted :)

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