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Concerning That Meal ... What Was That You Said?

March 22, 2012
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Odds are, you're not going to make it all the way through this article without thinking about something else.
 
In fact, studies have found that our minds are wandering half the time, drifting off to thoughts unrelated to what we're doing -- did I remember to turn off the light? What should I have for dinner? What do I want to see on TV?
 
A new study investigating the mental processes underlying a wandering mind reports a role for working memory, a sort of a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts and ideas simultaneously.
 
The new study, published online March 14 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, reports that a person's working memory capacity relates to the tendency of his or her mind to wander during a routine assignment.
 
The researchers asked volunteers to perform one of two simple tasks: pressing a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or simply tapping in time with one's breath.
 
As part of the process, they then compared people's propensity to drift off.
 
Throughout the tasks, the researchers checked in periodically with the participants to ask if their minds were on task or wandering. At the end, they measured each participant's working memory capacity, scored by their ability to remember a series of letters given to them interspersed with easy math questions.
 
In both tasks, there was a clear correlation. "People
with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these simple tasks," says Levinson, though their performance on the test was not compromised.
 
The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.

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