A new study has indicated that a wandering mind is a form of a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously.
Published online in the Psychological Science journal on March 14, 2012, the new report indicates that a person's working memory capacity relates to the tendency of the mind to wander during a routine assignment. The study was conducted 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.
Volunteers were asked to perform two simple tasks during the study, either press a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or simply tap in time with one's breath. They then compared the people's propensity to drift off.
We intentionally use tasks that will never use all of their attention, Smallwood explains, and then we ask, how do people use their idle resources?
The researchers then periodically checked with individuals to find out 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.
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.
Working memory capacity has previously been correlated with general measures of intelligence, such as reading comprehension and IQ score.