No Such Thing as a Spotless Mind

It’s better for the mind to focus on something than to wander — at least this is the conclusion of a survey by two Harvard psychologists reported in Science.

“Whatever people were doing, whether it was having sex or reading or shopping, they tended to be happier if they focused on the activity instead of thinking about something else. In fact, whether and where their minds wandered was a better predictor of happiness than what they were doing.” (See, The New York Times:  “When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays.”)

I can’t say I am surprised.  Psychoanalysts have used the technique of free association for years to track down the worries and anxieties of their patients.  We know that the mind freed of specific preoccupations is free to worry, and there is always something to worry about.  Encouraging it wander can help you find the more important worries.

The converse is also true.  A mind that concentrates intently on one thing has only that one thing to worry about.  We have known for years that those who obsess are usually trying to bind their attention that way, keeping it from straying to other, more frightening thoughts.  They are protecting themselves from the multiplicity things they would otherwise flood their minds.

But if you have one thing to worry about and you are making progress with it, not just escaping from other worries, you are essentially fulfilling what the evolutionary purpose of consciousness is probably all about.  And that feels good.

Daniel Gilbert, one the authors of the study, said he was surprised by the finding:  “our data suggest that the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter. The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet.”

He added:  “I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there.”

That too is no surprise for those of us who pay attention to the unconscious.  Not only is the body piloted by programs that operate out of awareness, the mind constantly wanders to detect threats that could turn out to be important for survival.

So when the mind finds something useful to concentrate on, stilling what William James called the “blooming and buzzing” confusion that fills our heads most of the time, we can start to feel effective.  We are no longer simply immersed in our worries, but we are also feeling more competent, and more in control.  That doesn’t always make us happy, but it does make us happier than we were.