Being distracted is good for you

Bethan McKernan@mck_beth
Friday 11 December 2015 18:10

It's not exactly a popular theory, but the 'anti-mindfulness' movement is arguing that letting your mind wander might be better for you than trying to concentrate.

While we all only have a certain amount of attention to give, The Long and Short claims, what scientific research says is that we are not very good at paying attention, even when we try - as anyone who's sat down to finish an essay or job application knows.

As communications expert Howard Rheigold puts it:

Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.

Harvard research from 2010 found that on average people are 'mentally absent' - ie, thinking about things other than what they're currently doing - at least half the time.

So should we be focussing or not?

While wandering attention can kill you, there's also evidence that letting the mind wander where it wants is a boon for creativity, and helps us think, subconsciously, about the future, research from the University of Auckland says.

But beware: there is good mind wandering, and bad mind wandering. One study has suggested that:

When we absent ourselves from a demanding task, we are much more likely to experience the negative effects of mind-wandering... By contrast, almost without exception, all of the adaptive features of self-generated thought are observed in less demanding situations.

And using the internet to distract yourself isn't 'good' distraction either. Nathan Spreng of the Laboratory of Brain and Cognition at Cornell University told The Long + Short:

Screens are so information-rich they are not going to be stimulating the creative process in the same way.

HT: The Long + Short

More: Quiz: Is the internet ruining your brain?