Test Yourself for Mind Wandering With Arnaud Delorme

February 15, 2024
IONS Communications Team

How often does your mind wander on a given day? The answer may vary from person to person. It would be fantastic to have a mechanism to peer into people’s minds and know what they think. As surprising as it sounds, we do have such a tool: language – we can ask people what they are thinking! 

And this is what scientists do. They question people in their own environment or ask people to come to the laboratory and perform repetitive tasks when mind wandering is more likely to occur.  

Self-Caught Mind Wandering

This skill isn’t exclusive to researchers either. As Arnaud Delorme shares in his book Why Our Minds Wander: Understand the Science and Learn How to Focus Your Thoughts, one way to determine if someone is mind wandering is to give them a task and ask them to report when they stop doing it or are distracted. As people must catch themselves mind-wandering, these events are called “self-caught” mind-wandering episodes.

Self-caught mind wandering requires a relatively repetitive task like counting the breath. Ideally, the task must also be mental, so it isn’t possible for the mind to wander and perform the task simultaneously.

For example, if you are washing the dishes, you can do so and think about something else simultaneously. By contrast, if someone asks you to count your breath backward, as in the exercise below, it will be difficult for you to do so and be able to think about something else at the same time. Demanding mental tasks are the type of task we would use to study self-caught mind wandering.

Exercise: Test Yourself for Mind Wandering

One task for self-caught mind wandering that Arnaud mentions in his book is to ask participants to close their eyes and count their breaths in reverse. The task is repetitive and relatively dull, so the mind spontaneously wanders. He asks participants to press a button on their lap if they realize they have lost count of their breath because they were thinking about something else.

This type of experiment taps into spontaneous meta-awareness – the self-awareness of the thinking process – and can be used to study what happens in the brain when a person becomes aware their mind is wandering. There’s even a version readers can try on their own:

  1. Sit in a quiet place where you know you will not be disturbed, set a timer on your smartphone for 10 minutes, and read the instructions for the exercise before starting.
  2. You will try counting your breath backward from 10 down to 1, then starting again at 10. One breath is one breath in and one breath out.
  3. When you have lost the count, start again at 10. Use your fingers to count the number of mind-wandering episodes. Your hands should be closed when you start, and you raise one of your fingers every time you lose your breath count. If you have more than 10 mind-wandering episodes in 10 minutes, just restart your finger count at 1.
  4. Thoughts will pop into your mind, such as “I got it” and “I do not need to do the 10 minutes,” but ignore these and stick to the 10 minutes.
  5. If you are unsure about the count or hesitate, consider that a mind-wandering episode.
  6. Now start the timer, close your eyes, and start counting your breaths.

You can also check out the helpful step-by-step video walkthrough of the method from Arnaud below:

This experiment is great to make you notice how hard it is to focus on something as simple as counting your breaths. It also shows how difficult it is to monitor your own mind. Did you feel any anxiety at the beginning? Did you notice the thought, “I do not think my mind is wandering much,” or “Am I doing the task correctly?” These thoughts are mind-wandering as well, and not all mind-wandering will cause you to lose track of your breath count.

This was an experiment Arnaud did with college students, except participants were not using their fingers to count mind wandering but pressing a button connected to a computer. Arnaud and his PhD student Claire studied the activity of the brain before participants pressed the button (when their mind was wandering) and after (when they were concentrated). Studying the brainwaves of the participants, they showed that mind-wandering is akin to a type of microsleep where the brain is resting. This was the first brain-imaging scientific experiment that relied purely on introspection. No stimuli are shown to the subject, and the experiment depends on when people press the button, which is based only on their internal perception of their mental state.  

If you would like to learn more about mind wandering, the different ways to test for it, and techniques for dealing with overwhelming thoughts, check out Arnaud’s book Why Our Minds Wander: Understand the Science and Learn How to Focus Your Thoughts (available now on Bookshop and where books are sold). You’ll find easy techniques that will enable you to develop the skill of mind wandering to improve your mood and foster greater creativity.

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