The world of science is full of “Eureka” moments, where a sudden insight or solution to a problem suddenly appears in the mind, from the story of Archimedes in the bathtub to Newton’s apple and Einstein’s theory of relativity.
There are two types of thinking, intentional and unintentional. Intentional thinking is thinking on purpose, which includes things like planning, analysis and problem-solving. Unintentional thinking is when our attention is drawn towards automatic thoughts when our mind wanders away from the present task. The thoughts that arise when our mind wanders can be negative, positive or neutral and about the past, present or future. Thoughts that arise automatically tend to be more negative for a number of reasons:
- They may be habit patterns about ourselves and our story that we repeat
- Our brains evolved with an inbuilt negativity bias, which accentuates things that are threatening or unpleasant over things that are safe and pleasant
- As they are automatic, mind-wandering thoughts are subject to the law of entropy, so run downhill from order to disorder
Neuroscientists have discovered a part of the brain called the default mode network that activates when our brain thinks there’s not much going on, for instance, cleaning your teeth or taking a shower. The default mode network is similar to advanced smart speaker software, like Amazon’s Alexa that operates in our heads, speaks in the first person, and tells us things like, “Still haven’t properly organized the holiday. Not looking at my best today. Are those bags under my eyes getting worse? and what about that difficult situation at work? I’m sure I’ll handle it whatever I do… “
The latest research on mind-wandering is exploring the idea that we have an unconscious monitoring function that scans the mental content just below awareness and automatically switches it into attention in moments of apparent downtime. This function alerts us to unresolved activities and unfinished business that may be useful in the future, as well as habitual past and present-moment commentary on who we are and our situation. So, for example, our attention may be drifting when driving a car when our mind wanders to explore pre-conscious mental content about who we are meeting at the destination.
Some of these automatic thoughts can be positive, expanding and nurturing and others can be negative, limiting and depleting. A big part of mindfulness practice is noticing and observing these as they pass through the mind with what we can call meta-awareness – the awareness of the content of our conscious experience.
Like the eureka moments, positive automatic thoughts can help us solve complex problems as well as be creative. Positive mind-wandering plays an important and inspiring role in many creative and performing arts, including music, literature, painting, acting, and photography. Interestingly, some artists, poets, and writers use day-dreaming as a way of exploring their imaginations, as part of the creative process. Obviously, it’s important that they remain aware and awake while they drift off. So maybe all those times when your attention drifted off in the classroom at school, or in those overly long meetings at work, can now be justified!
The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe and is amazingly powerful. One well-known technique for solving difficult problems is to send a well-formed question to the back of our mind and wait for the answer to percolate. For instance, asking “What’s the most skilful way of overcoming the block on the project I’m working on?” and then move onto something else. The chances are that later you are walking the dog or taking a shower when a useful answer appears.
When we practise mindfulness, we learn to become more aware of and notice when our mind wanders. This is not so that we stop this activity or block thoughts; it’s to step back and gain insight and understanding of how our mind operates. Without awareness, negative automatic thoughts can define and limit who we are, and miss the positive, useful and creative ideas and insights that emerge. So being more aware of both positive and negative mind-wandering can make a real difference to our performance and wellbeing.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then close your eyes while this meditation plays that starts with noticing sounds and then explores noticing thoughts.
Suggested weekly practice
- Use curiosity and awareness to observe whether or not your mind works in the ways described above and see what insights emerge.
- Have a go at solving a difficult problem by sending a well-formed question to the back of your mind, leaving it to percolate and see what happens.
- Watch your automatic thoughts and observe whether they are useful, positive, expanding and nurturing or not useful, negative, limiting and depleting.
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