‘Off Topic’ Thinking Linked To High Working Memory Capacity

Having a mind that wanders and drifts off into thoughts unrelated to the task at hand might not be such a bad thing after all, according to a new study published online by the journal Psychology Science last Wednesday.

In fact, according to PsychCentral Senior News Editor Rick Nauert, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science have discovered that this phenomenon is actually associated with working memory capacity, a trait that has long been associated with reading comprehension, IQ score, and other generally accepted measured of mental aptitude.

“According to researchers, our minds are wandering half the time, drifting off to thoughts unrelated to what we´re doing,” Nauert said. “In the new study, researchers believe a wandering mind is linked to working memory–a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously. Working memory allows an individual to multi-task and retain information while performing other activities.”

As part of their study, Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, asked volunteers to perform one of two basic tasks. Participants could either push a button once a specific letter appeared on a screen, or tap in time with their own breathing. The experts would then measure the frequency at which they would lose focus.

“Throughout the tasks, the researchers checked in periodically with the participants to ask if their minds were on task or wandering,” the US-based university said in a statement Thursday. “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.”

Regardless of which task a person had been given to complete, the researchers discovered that individuals who had higher working memory capacity reported that their mind wandered more often during these simple tasks, though their performance on their respective tests did not suffer as a result.

According to the press release, this is the first time that a study has unearthed a positive correlation between a person’s working memory and the act of mind wandering, and they believe that the discover “suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.”

“What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren´t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they´re doing,” Dr Jonathan Smallwood of the Leipzig, Germany-based Institute, told The Telegraph on Friday.

“Our results suggest the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life–when they are on the bus, when they are cycling to work, when they are in the shower–are probably supported by working memory,” he added. “Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems.”