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Mindwandering and Boredom

Colette's picture


Colette Young                                                                                                                   6 April 2010

Paul Grobstein                                                                                                                  Neuro Biology


                                                                                Web Paper 2


            Boredom and mind wandering are frequent recurring experiences that typically occur during conferences, events, lectures (of course excluding Neuro Bio), etc. Research has shown that mind wandering is a decoupling of the attentional focusing process that impairs the integrated scheme necessary for successful learning (Smallwood et al. 2007). People encode public external information and transform it so that it is consistent with their own personal representations. The hierarchical levels in discourse processing begin with superficial engagement with the task environment requiring stimulus identification. When mind wandering occurs, there may be a failure in identification such as detecting the target from a stream of irrelevant targets. In moderate engagement with the task environment such as list learning there is stimulus identification and retention. Mind wandering at this level impairs superficial encoding. At the third level, the deepest engagements with the task environment as in reading are necessary requiring stimulus identification, retention, and model creation in which information is detected and retained and then a narrative of events that extend in time is created. Mind wandering at this level impairs model building. Regardless of which level mind wandering occurs, people’s ability to comprehend is diminished and until there is a suitable solution to aiding peoples’ attention information processing will be impaired. Mind wandering occurs less frequently (20%-40%) at higher levels of engagement than at lower levels (30%-50%) 

            A study conducted by Smallwood et al., looked at mind wandering in populations where mind wandering was more frequent (Depressed and ADHD patients) and suggested techniques that could help to decrease their mind-wandering. They hypothesized that in these groups, people were more likely to mind wander due to deficits in metacognitive control – the ability to realize, control and affect their own thinking processes. Their findings indicated that this was indeed true and led them to conclude that despite these people's intention to pay attention, they go off task. The authors suggested that types of metacognative strengthening therapy would probably be beneficial to minimizing mind-wandering. For example, promotion of participation using think-aloud protocols and/or comprehension monitoring has been suggested. Such techniques could help increase engagement with material through use of immersion and lower the frequency of mind wandering. Another suggestion proposed by Smallwood et al., would be metacognitive training techniques such as Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This attempts to change the relationship between individuals and their thoughts in order to reduce mind wandering. 

            In a report “What does doodling do?” by Jackie Andrade, it was found that people often doodle, aimlessly sketching patterns and figures unrelated to a primary task. Some have wondered whether doodling may have some functional role in combating boredom. In Andrade’s experiment, subjects listened to a dull voice message in a dull room while simultaneously coloring simple geometric forms, an approximation of “doodling.” The author found that those who doodled did better recalling names and places mentioned in the voice message on a recall test.   The authors suggested that doodling may have reduced mind wandering and thereby facilitated deeper processing. This may have been the result of adding a resource load to an undemanding task or by selectively loading central executive resources by forcing coordination of verbal and visuo-spatial short-term memory and preventing these resources to be used for mind wandering.

            Central Pattern Generators are networks of neurons that without an outside stimulus can produce periodically a symphony of patterned outputs enabling activities such as walking, breathing, flying, and swimming (Marder et al. 2001). Rhythmic patterns are generated by two or more processes interacting such that sequentially there is an increase and decrease in output, the system always returning to its starting condition.   Patterns are not locked, but can be modified so that there may be a family of related actions such as walking and running or there may be variations that result in what categorically are separate actions such as running and crawling. CPGs help organisms function more quickly and efficiently and in a more coordinated manner.

            Smallwood et al. reported that at all levels of task engagement there is a very high amount of mind wandering approaching 50% of time spent off task. People seem to cycle between attention to a task and time spent off task and this seems to be imbedded in people. Mind wandering is not a physical action like walking or breathing, but there could be a central pattern generator that cycles attention with it increasing and decreasing over time in relation to several tasks. It could be for survival not to be too focused on one activity and not tuning in on what else is going on. In a classroom this might be a problem, but in the jungle it might be necessary.

            When a motor command is generated a copy of the command called an efference copy may be made and retained. This efference copy enables the brain to compare what is reported to it by the sensory system as the result of the execution of the motor command. A comparison can be made between the expected results and the actual result. The copy can also be put into the sensory pathway to cancel out what is reported to the brain by the sensory system as a result of the execution of the motor command. This may help distinguish between self generated and externally generated sensory information.

            Corollary discharges show that copies of neuronal commands can be fed into other neural pathways and affect their functioning or even their ability to function. It has been shown that certain metacognitive techniques such as mindfulness based cognitive therapy can reduce mind wandering. Mind wandering is not motor activity, but doodling is. Copies of the doodling activity commands may be fed into the central pattern generator to diminish its increasing/decreasing activity so that a person would stay on task consistently.



                                                           Works Cited


Andrade, Jackie. (2010) “What does Doodling do?” Applied cognitive Psychology 24,        100-106.

Smallwood, Jonathan. (2007) “Counting the cost of an absent mind: Mindwandering as    an Underrecognized influence on educational performance.” Psychonomic         Bulletin and Review, 230.

Washburn, Daniel. (1972) “Increase of Autonomic Arousal By Boredom.” Journal of         Abnormal Psychology. Vol 80 NO 1 29-36.




Paul Grobstein's picture

making sense (and use?) of mind wandering

"a decoupling of the attentional focusing process that impairs the integrated scheme necessary for successful learning"

I'm intrigued by the notion of doodling as reflecting central pattern generators, and of corollary discharge as a means by which different activities can hinder or help other activities.  My guess though is that "mind wandering" may get in the way of "schemes necessary for successful learning" in some contexts but may actually contribute to successful learning in others.  There's lots of evidence for new insights arising from dreaming and day dreaming.