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A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind (2010) [pdf] (berkeley.edu)
231 points by dnetesn on Apr 9, 2018 | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

There's a plenty of occasions, causes and distractions to make your mind wander. To me personally the most prominent ones are when reading a book (which is also the most infuriating) and while riding some sort of public transport.

The latter one helps me to reduce head buzz which is generated by randomly reading HN posts or working on a demanding task.

Reading a book, where I actually need to concentrate on the book, some contents generate occasional mind branches. That means, I continue reading, but I think about something else triggered by what's in the book. Then I switch back to the book realizing "Wait, where was I? I have no idea why I'm reading this, and now I skipped a whole page."

When I make a long trip I also have a lot of time to think. So, my scope of thoughts grows and my mind wanders. Basically that's the mode which potentially might make me very happy or deeply unhappy. Because the scope expands from decisions made in the past to decisions to make in the future. And that's where it hurts most.

Can anyone relate?

I could be wrong but your mind wandering off on a tangent while you're reading might be a sign of creativity. Creativity could be when you find relationships between two things that might not have been initially connected in your head. Your mind wandering could be your brain literally making new connections between the new material you're reading and existing material in your brain. Also, I think comparing and contrasting information is a way of learning. I'm basing this from a book I read, A Mind for Numbers, and they have a chapter that explains how the brain works and thus how people learn.

I assure you I am not creative.

Cut yourself a little slack ... I'm sure you _are_ creative, but perhaps have never _directed_ it towards any particular goal.

If you've got the time, I highly recommended this talk by John Cleese on Creativity: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb5oIIPO62g

Being such an annoying/intense associative thinker that I am, then I must be some super creative genius, and don't know it yet? Unlikely, so I doubt that it's true.

I can relate with the reading issue. I've occasionally read 2 pages of a book while thinking of something else entirely, then realise I didn't absorb any of what I read. Not just tuning in and out - nothing..

I also can't skim text - need to almost pronounce all the phrases in my head, which is a pain when reading long books. I do read a lot, and have no literacy or comprehension issues - just seems like there's interference somewhere..

I don't regret not being able to finish a book when I go off into deep branches of thought, provoked by ideas from a book. It's not an issue unless I really need to read something and focus. While I may not finish a book, I've gotten so much from the experience of reading it. The experience is gratifying and worthwhile because of the creativity a book can spark.

A good book is a catalyst for the creative mind.

Skimming text doesn't work the same for everyone. The eyes literally scan a page for (basically random) nouns, buzzwords, verbs etc to kinda guess the content, regarding the context. The associative power of the brain (which is different in every person) fills in the gaps and usually guesses everything correctly. But when there is a context switch in between... well, the wrong guess can turn out catastrophically bad.

I think, when my mind wanders off while still reading that means I got "bored" with the text by already knowing what's going to happen and I switch to associative thoughts instead. That's a problem for people who think highly associative instead of sequential. They need to apply or follow sequential logic actively instead of just doing it automatically, and that occasionally bores the hell of them, or exhaust them, because often they just know how things are. Hence the wandering mind in this case is a different one compared to the cases in the article.

> I think, when my mind wanders off while still reading that means I got "bored" with the text by already knowing what's going to happen and I switch to associative thoughts instead.

Notice any difference between how your brain "behaves" reading fiction and non-fiction/academic works - e.g. reading for enjoyment vs reading argumentative discourse. For fiction, do you also find yourself guessing at the content or wandering off?

Fiction in most cases uses descriptive language, with a lot of cues for imagination to kick in. It's something different compared to reading scientific articles in journals. In such article you need to follow the logical reasoning and decision-making, considering other possibilities and outcomes (especially when reading the problem analysis and conclusion parts).

Both cases have similar pattern in terms of wandering off for me, but they are not quite the same. Reading for joy means enjoying the products of your own imagination, but sometimes it shoots over the line, I guess. Reading for work is more tedious, because its not for fun, hence the guessing distraction, like "yeah, I get it, but what about this and that?" Having understood the problem, reading the solutions then seems kinda obvious.

There is a difference, but both follow the same pattern, so: yeah.

As I learned, my habit of kinda omitting the obvious and wander off to the non-obvious relations behind it all the time seems to be rare. I've never met another person who does that.

This sounds quite similar to my experience. I have a Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, and if I don't sub-vocalize everything, I end up with no idea of what I've just read. Often, I end up with my mind wandering in the same way and I'll have to go back and re-read everything I'd just read. While individual sentences and phrases will seem irritatingly familiar, I still have no idea of what I've read until I re-read it.

I'll sometimes find myself unable to grasp what I'm reading as if I were daydreaming while reading it, and I have to read it four or five times before I can get a clue about the material. It's easier if I break it down into the smallest fragments I can, and really force myself to understand those little bits, proceeding through it until I've stitched together a few of these into a larger concept. Rinse, repeat.

That's interesting. I suppose the written word is just a visual representation that needs to be parsed, natural that there could be thought processes that overlap and conflict with that process. The only similar experience I have is when I'm learning a new tune on the piano - when following the sheet music my mind keeps jumping ahead and trying to work out where the song is going (and also analyzing how I'm playing), whereas working out the tune and playing "by ear" is much quicker for me and doesn't cause any concentration issues. It's a pretty mild and perfectly manageable thing for me though, I can generally force myself to comply, but it takes effort!

I (sort-of) play bass, and when I learn a song from tab, I'm pretty much just wrote learning. I'm sort-of learning to read musical notation, but I don't really have a visual memory which makes it really hard. It would certainly be a lot easier if I had a lot more knowledge of musical theory.

Playing by ear is much harder for me because I know just a few scales, and I can't hold a note in my head long enough to find it on the fretboard. Knowing the scales would make everything a subconscious pattern.

Mind you, I am starting to think that's entirely an anxiety thing.

You might have success curbing excessive daydreaming with a nootropic like modafinil or even something like ritalin. Some vitamins help too like choline. Also, audio books.

I love the process of reading, but I've found for learning large amounts of material I read it out loud, record and MP3 it, and then listen to it through headphones, so that does work well.

Will look into those vitamins, thanks for the tip!


I find it helpful to use a scrap of paper as a bookmark and write down the page numbers of excerpts that strike me. Then when I'm done I go back and type the excerpts up into a big Google doc I keep for this purpose along with a paragraph or two of my thoughts on the book.

Usually the quotes trigger the tangential ideas I had while reading and I can synthesize them into something useful.

I'm happy I found this technique. I think it's significantly upped the utility I get from books, since I can go back and remember what hit me about them.

When you say "synthesize them into something useful", what do you mean? What's something useful that's resulted from this habit?

"Something useful" here refers to an opinion on what the book in question is "about", or an interesting lesson I drew from it, or a coherent reason why I might recommend it to somebody else.

Here, for example, is what I wrote down for A House For Mr Biswas:

> Finished yesterday, and found this primarily a story about a man who never really knows himself, and as a result can never quite situate other people in relation to himself. Fits and starts of self-improvement, a sense of life about to begin that persists for far too long, shifting roles played according to setting, a series of humiliations for which books offer some kind of solace and hope for betterment -- yikes. Like Proust, Naipaul seems to like unpacking the (nonobvious, often directly contradicting the obvious) motivations behind actions, and like The God of Small Things, the picture that emerges is one in which nobody is all that good, though it mercifully lacks its clockwork-mechanism-of-misery aspect

I generally find that books leave me with ideas and sensations that tend to just dissipate if I don't write them down. This is a way of combating that.

Yes, somehow the reading mind reads, but no one's listening. However, for me it often triggers a new idea.

I think the problem is not the wandering itself, but self-focus of the wandering. Great eureka moments come from wandering, but they are about external, objective questions.

John Stuart Mill (the utilitarianism guy) developed an "anti-self-consciousness theory" and overcame his depression/ennui.

"Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation exhaust themselves on that." --- http://theliterarylink.com/anti_selfconsciousness.html


You should read "How to read a book" book from Mortimer Adler. If you read a book asking questions about why did the author said that? is it true? so what? Your mind will stop wondering around and you will be actively searching for the answers. That's a good book and everybody should read it.

I take road trips alone occasionally to have very long, uninterrupted periods to allow my mind to wander. I've always felt that it was very valuable, whether I was dwelling on an exciting new idea, something deeply upsetting, or something completely nonsensical.

I don't think of the associated depression, loneliness and boredom as being good or bad, they are simply part of a rich mental life.

I am often frustrated by difficulty concentrating, though, and frequently have invasive thoughts as you describe. The things that have helped me most with those are eliminating caffeine, meditating regularly (particularly compassion meditation, peculiarly), and exercise.

But yes, I can relate! I'm very grateful for having a mind that wanders, despite the irritation (it's not unlike caring for a small child I think)

> That means, I continue reading, but I think about something else triggered by what's in the book. Then I switch back to the book realizing "Wait, where was I? I have no idea why I'm reading this, and now I skipped a whole page."

Solve this with a "catch": something you use to empty the distracting ideas from your head, then get back to what you're doing. The original suggestion for a catch I found in "Mind Performance Hacks" by Ron Hale-Evans was a piece of paper and a writing utensil. These days with all sorts of apps to "catch" ideas, you have plenty of options. I've become very comfortable with org-mode myself.

I can relate. Extremely annoying when it happens on texts that are need to read, more acceptable when it’s leisure and I can always go back later.

It also happens when I listen to audiobooks. Sometimes I pause these or swap to music if the wandering is too bad.

> Reading a book, where I actually need to concentrate on the book, some contents generate occasional mind branches. That means, I continue reading, but I think about something else triggered by what's in the book. Then I switch back to the book realizing "Wait, where was I? I have no idea why I'm reading this, and now I skipped a whole page."

I completely relate to this.

It depends on what I’m reading. If I’m reading a book I enjoy, I absorb the pages as if a movie is playing in my mind. I don’t see the words, only the images of however my imagination creates it.

If I’m reading something technical or work related, I can’t concentrate because my mind is unable to bridge that gap between the text and my imagination. I find myself bored within moments and I skim the text looking for keywords that are relative to the problem I’m trying to solve.

Boy, can I relate. This happens to me all the time, especially when reading science fiction and the author drops some really interesting new idea in my head. I've had to reread a whole page because I kept reading on inertia while my mind absorbed the cool new idea.

Yep, books have typically been a poor way to learn for me, unless they're really good (by the metric of keeping me engaged).

It has always been a frustrating thing.

Yes, I can relate-- deeply. Are we a unique archetype? Maybe.

When I'm very sleep-deprived, I tend to be better able to focus on the present, and not worry about ambient anxiety-causing topics. My mind has less resources to wander as much as usual. Between that anecdotal experience, and previous stories about sleep deprivation as a treatment for depression, I wonder if there's something to be set about forcing your mind into a single-threaded mode, to avoid the usual distracting worries.

Functioning sleep deprive may feel like you're better at focusing on the present. But I believe that it's your inability to give a crap that helps the most and removes the second-guessing and mind wandering; a similar state of mind can be achieved by physical exhaustion, whether it's at the gym or from a run or a swim. Try that, it's far better than being sleep deprived.

> a similar state of mind can be achieved by physical exhaustion, whether it's at the gym or from a run or a swim. Try that, it's far better than being sleep deprived.

It's not complete physical exhaustion, but a heavy session of lifting weights or cardio certainly clears my mind, helps me to to focus on tasks to completion.

I think this is a blade with two edges. I use to fast once a year and when the body slows down its great for homing on on singular tasks and getting stuff done as everything else is just too much to spend any energy on. However solving complex problems or creative work is usually done in the morning when Im still fresh and able to go outside of the box. In the end it just boils down to what you're trying to get done.

Makes me wonder if there's a methodology of using full energy for creativity, and lower energy for times when more discipline would usually be required. Of course then there is the discipline needed to not fall into distraction traps then.

I've experienced sleep deprived productivity before, but I have found it is hit and miss too.

If I am doing something that requires craft or discipline I prefer to be well rested. When you are sleep deprived and productive remember that it is a high interest loan that you are going to have to pay back someday.

My best creativity is when riding my bike in a relaxing place, in the shower, or what I call the half-sleep trance just before falling asleep.

I don't think productivity while fatigued is good at all. But I do think that when one is tired, it may be possible to be less anxious than usual, since one's mind doesn't get distracted by tangential worries as much as usual.

Yes, but tired from exercise is different from tired from sleep deprivation.

Think of it this way, you probably have a lot more energy to use willpower to keep yourself focused when you are rested vs not. When you are so tired you’re physically incapable of focusing on anything else flow can also work, but sometimes the arrow is aimed wrong

I think this is actually a natural part of a regular joe's working day. It's said in software development that you can only spend about four days on focused work - the creative part you mentioned. The rest is then spent on lower energy tasks, like communications, code cleanup, etc.

I think I saw something about sleep deprivation has been shown to temporarily greatly relieve symptoms of depression for a day to a week or so.

Chronic sleep deprivation has the opposite effect though, so it isn't the most practical.

Out of the symptoms of depression is excessive sleep which messes up your bodies biochemical rhythms, so sleeping less can help with that

Interesting point. I can relate to these experiences, too. In fact, I just learned Rust in the last few months by driving myself harder than usual. I pursued it with relentless determination, ending many days in mental exhaustion.

I wouldn't know what happiness is anymore, since I work for a living. I wasn't happy in school because attendance was compulsory, but I do remember summers being okay.

It's been decades since I've enjoyed a "summer time" but once, when I lost my job for about 6 weeks, I was almost happy during week 5 until I landed a job offer, and spent week 6 stressing about returning to work. It took me a month to feel like a human being again, and just as I started to relax, it was taken away from me.

So I disagree. A mind compelled to focus for unnatural reasons, onto details personally irrelevant to one's continued existence, under threat of being ostracized from civilized society (can't pay rent; out on the street) is an unhappy mind.

In return, I disagree with your perspective. While you are certainly right about stressful experiences related to employment and status in modern society, how exactly would this not have been a variation on the same problem for forms of life and society that we have observed so far?

Today we might rush after digital clocks and adapt our waking lives to the never extinguished electric lights that encircle us, all while the power of science has still failed to reduce our working times which have been rising ever since the agricultural revolution. In earlier society people felt the need to please the Gods - whatever their job situation was.

Even as lone hunter-gatherer your mind would be stressed because life itself continuously coerces you into doing inconvenient things in order to survive. You need things and they aren't just popping into your hands. Society made it massively easier to simply survive and not die.

But the factor we are REALLY after and which stresses us out without end is status. For you, for your children, for the rest of your family. Until status doesn't matter, stress will exist. No matter how much we secure and automate in the rest of our lives, be it health or hunger.

You work for a living because you chose to. There's an option not to pay rent and live on the street. You, obviously, have freely chosen another one for certain reasons even if you're not fully aware what these reasons were.

I imagine part and parcel of this unhappiness is that it is taboo - you have to create a throwaway account or otherwise find an anonymous forum in which to express it.

> Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all.

How do they know what animals think or don't think about? Many, many animals have lots of idle time where they do mostly nothing (not looking for food, or a mate, or anything); why would they not be dreaming or remembering things from the past??

"Although this ability is a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost"

"Qui auget scientiam, auget et dolorem. Qui auget dolorem, auget et scientiam." Lucio Anneo Seneca - De providentia - AD 64

translated: who deepens his wisdom deepens also his sorrow. who deepens his sorrow deepens also his wisdom

I’m curious what this means for mainly intellectual jobs/skills. What’s the difference between mind wandering and, er, thinking? We can easily separate “programming” from “thinking about what’s for dinner,” and say the latter is wandering - but what about “could I do this another way? What was that technique I read about yesterday? But if I use that, then it might have this downside, which would mean x happens, and in scenario y that would be bad because z...” Is that wandering or focus? It’s certainly about what happened in the past and what will happen in the future (or will never happen at all). And it surely could make you unhappy. But it also seems very necessary!

Maybe that's part of why those sorts of jobs pay pretty well and have such high burnout rates.

I'm not sure there really is a difference. I often find myself drifting off into code issues - I've had many an epiphany while trying hard to focus on something completely different.

I for one have an issue that only came to light after being in a relationship and have struggled with having to think about the facts of reality. Usually fine most days, but some dumb thing will connect the memory chain (like this HN post ironically) and down the spiral I go. It's the wandering that really does lead me astray.

A shot in the dark here, but is it Retroactive Jealousy?

That is correct. To give insight as to why it seems a little too close to hopeless, I feel the only solutions physically possible are just twisting words to make it seem okay but the hard facts remain at the end of the day. I say this maybe preemptively to your response, but I say it respectfully (or rather with no intension to disrespect your response) and, for my own health, wish to be proven wrong.

For me in the end, it's those realities that come pay me a visit when the mind wanders. To add to it, I use to relish the fun and imagination a wandering mind brought to my day. Now it's nothing more than a pain point.

I have this pretty bad. I'll tell you this much, I have had it with partners with pretty extreme sexual histories, as well as those who have had almost no sexual histories. The "hard facts" themselves are not really the issue, the issue is us; our brains. We will find the "hard facts" pretty much no matter what, and no matter who.

I've recently read this article on Reddit [0], and it has some excellent points/advice. Please read through it. If you do like what he has to say, then one way to follow this advice is to look into the concept of Mindfulness, specifically as put forward by Vipassana meditation [1].

[0] https://www.reddit.com/r/OCD/comments/3oyh06/beat_retroactiv...

[1] I specify Vipassana because the term mindfulness has become a world of hipster woo in recent times, and just looking into the term alone will probably take you nowhere.

I experienced this quite badly in my first relationship. It briefly stung me in the early stages of later relationships, but I no longer seem to care.

If I think about it directly, I find it a saddening for a very brief moment, but it's nothing like it once was.

I'm not really sure when or how this changed for me. I'm an extremely monogamous person. I previously had very low self esteem. It was definitely in part a reflection of my insecurities.

I take 10mg of citalopram a day and underwent CBT partway through university due to undiagnosed anxiety, so perhaps this has played a role in my recovery.

Hope you both are doing okay, try and be kind to yourselves - I know it can be extremely difficult.

I laughed at this comment chain, because I relate to the general idea put forward here.

I'm finding this difficult to comment on so intangibly. Try and suspend your convictions as stupid or empty the rest of this might seem.

You really have to change your perspective.

For me, that meant making new memories. I struggled with the reminders of that past relationship. It overlapped very many areas of my life, there were a few I just couldn't avoid and many were dear to me. The good becoming bad in that aftermath, it all seemed tainted by the past, not going anywhere.

I took a new approach altogether in those areas, piece by piece. Sooner or later I stopped having those initial and seemingly involuntary attachments. I don't even recognise it anymore, but I do still remember things and it isn't always bad. It does undo itself in time, with that new perspective.

Those hard facts are a good thing if they are part of a process. Like grieving [1].

Our thoughts determine our feelings. You seem to have a great awareness of your situation which has always been a good starting point on many things for me. You can challenge your reality, the present moment being based on what you're making of the past and not a whole lot else (or so it seems).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model

Heh, that's a recently invented term for an old phenomen. When was that coined?

Fwiw, I think it's a form of bitter competitiveness. It is reduced by having more diverse sexual experience and by one's partner not dwelling on their past and showing they treat you better than they treated their ex.

Hmmm, I don't want to sound dismissive here, but from your comment I can only assume that you've never been through it.

I agree with your premise, that it probably grows out of an evolutionary need, but the treatment you mention is flat out wrong for most people who have the issue.

As a person struggling with ADHD, the answer is yes. It will make you lose your god given shit at your incapacity of staying on any given task, ranging from the simplest -like defecation- to tasks requiring executive functioning.

I often think that a mind that wanders is a bit like the physical sensation of pain. In general, it is actually a very useful evolutionary advantage to experience pain, as well as to have a mind that can contemplate multiple possibilities, past, future and hypothetical events. This makes us succeed. But at the same time, pain is also a bit primitive in that it is useless and counterproductive when you already know you're sick or injured. Similarly, a wandering mind that is out of control is basically the primary cause of depression. It might be the case that as we evolved, a wandering mind was extremely useful to wander about where to look for food or how to hunter gather better, etc, but perhaps the mechanism is less well-equipped to function properly in modern day society.

All just conjecture of course, no clue if backed up by any evidence :-)

A wandering mind isn't always an unhappy mind. When undertaking "engaged wandering", great ideas may emerge. A wandering mind isn't wandering in an entirely random, chaotic fashion. If you're solving challenging problems, sometimes you may discover a novel solution by relaxing and letting your mind wander for a while. I've found mind wandering particularly useful while designing/architecting.

However, aside from "engaged wandering", I've found a lot of pain from a wandering mind. I am working as a solo-preneur on a high-risk venture. Anxiety seems to be ever-present at the door step of my attention, waiting for the next moment that my mind wanders and anxiety may enter.

Oh great, one more thing to worry about.

already thinking about something else.

Sounds interesting. Perhaps I shall open it in another tab for later reading.

I occurs to me that being unfulfilled with what you are currently doing is what leads to mind wandering and unhappiness, rather than mind wandering itself being the cause of unhappiness. Mind wandering is a signal that you aren't having fun.

This is not necessarily true. This is especially because tasks that we ultimately find fulfilling, are not often ones that we would define as "fun". Fulfilling, deep, concentration often requires hard work, and forceful concentration, on difficult things. The number of things that are fun, and deeply fulfilling are few and far between.

My mind rather determinedly started wandering after the very first sentence:

>Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them

Did they interview all these other animals, all of them, Noah's ark style? The proposition may well be true, but it's still a proposition presented a fact in what's presumably meant to look like a somewhat scientific report.

My mind doesn't just wander. I lose all further interest.

I'm worried about how I ended up reading this story...

"Does a neurotic's mind wander?"

Not all who wander are lost. (I just had to)

But mild unhappiness also predicts behavioral variability.

> In a paper pessimistically titled “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert reported that people felt less happy when their minds strayed from the task at hand, even when they were dwelling on pleasant topics—and even when the task itself was not enjoyable.

The Paper is a much better read than the OP => https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/...

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