£1m to study mind wandering mechanism

What’s going on in your head when you daydream? talks to Dr Jonathan Smallwood about mind wandering

Scientists are undecided on the importance of keeping your mind on the present moment Image: sduhamsu

Mindfulness therapy involves always focussing on the present moment, but scientists don’t yet know the consequences
Image: sduhamsu

What would you do with one million pounds? Last term, the University of York’s Dr Jonathan Smallwood was awarded a whopping £1.3m by the European Research Council.

Smallwood is interested in understanding unfocused thought. A type of therapy called ‘Mindfulness therapy’ is becoming increasingly popular: the NHS recommends it as a way of reducing stress and improving mood. Recent studies suggest that mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy can be as effective as antidepressant drugs for reducing depressive symptoms.

But Smallwood warns that this wave of mindfulness therapies might be premature, with insufficient knowledge about the way the mind works. The therapy involves focusing only on the present moment and positive thoughts. But to do this is to take the view that the mind wandering always has a negative outcome. Most people are actually in a state of mind wandering for about half of the day.
Using thought in this way is likely to be important for planning future behaviours based on past outcomes, and removing unfocused thoughts has the potential to do more harm than good.

There is therefore a need to model the neural mechanisms underlying spontaneous thinking and this is what Smallwood’s next piece of research will address. Previously, neural imaging techniques have been avoided, because mind-wandering is elusive and tricky to trigger. Smallwood will overcome this by observing brain activity during a wide range of tasks and asking participants if they started day-dreaming at any point during testing. Overlapping patterns of brain activity during different tasks which all result in mind wandering could then highlight which regions create unregulated thought processes.

This research has hugely important implications for health and education. Studies have found that unregulated, spontaneous thoughts can lead to significant reductions in reading comprehension. If underlying mind wandering mechanisms are understood, then interventions could be deigned to help struggling students filter out interfering thoughts.

Crucially, Smallwood’s research will investigate whether the neural networks engaged in positive mind-wandering can be dissociated from negative ruminating. If so, it may be possible to create therapies which inhibit negative consequences of mind-wandering without destroying any of its advantageous qualities. If the same network gives rise to both outcomes, then we may be wise to take a step back from mindfulness therapies, unless we’re willing to sacrifice a small essence of our very existence.

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