Mindfulness Can Get Wandering Thoughts Back on Track

Summary: Practicing mindfulness when your mind is wandering can help you regain attention, researchers report.

Source: University of Cincinnati

Everyone has times where their mind won’t stay on task. For example, you might be listening to someone talk in a meeting or class and your mind wanders to your dinner plans. Notably, research suggests that 30% to 50% of our daily thoughts are spent on this kind of mind wandering, and that excessive mind wandering can lead to many negative outcomes like poorer performance on standardized tests and poorer recall of information.

“While zoning out for a few minutes during a meeting may not hurt, it can impact you negatively if it goes on for long periods of time,” says Lynley Turkelson, a University of Cincinnati doctoral student and lead author of a new study on mindfulness and mind wandering published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.

“When distracting thoughts or feelings come up, mindfulness helps us gently set them aside and refocus on what is right in front of us,” says Turkelson.

Methods of practicing mindfulness vary but include practices such as breathwork and meditation.

For example, Turkelson says, one can practice mindfulness by paying attention to the experience of eating a favorite food: “You may start by noticing the smell of the food before you eat it, what it feels like as you bite into it, how it feels in your mouth, and the taste. Or perhaps you pay attention to the flow of breath in and out of your lungs or on the sensations you experience in various parts of the body.”

This shows a woman watching a sunset
Methods of practicing mindfulness vary but include practices such as breathwork and meditation. Image is in the public domain

For the study, Turkelson, a doctoral student and fellow in UC’s Department of Psychology, and co-author Quintino Mano, Ph.D., a UC associate professor of psychology, conducted a systematic review of research that looks at the relationship between mindfulness and mind wandering.

What they found is that while mindfulness—the ability to intentionally focus attention on the present moment—can be effective for reducing mind wandering, results do differ depending on the research methodology. For instance, people are sometimes unaware when they are distracted, so asking them to report their own mind wandering is not reliable. The study results show it’s better to measure mind wandering in other ways, such as using computer-based testing.

“During COVID, people are facing even more distractions than normal, so it is important to find research-based ways to decrease mind wandering and improve attention,” says Turkelson.

Turkelson says that their systematic review looks at the research on this topic and synthesizes the results so that researchers know how consistent these findings are, as well as what still needs to be studied to improve our understanding of how mindfulness helps with mind wandering.

About this attention and mindfulness research news

Author: Angela Koenig
Source: University of Cincinnati
Contact: Angela Koenig – University of Cincinnati
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
The Current State of Mind: a Systematic Review of the Relationship Between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering” by Lynley Turkelson et al. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement


The Current State of Mind: a Systematic Review of the Relationship Between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering

Mind-wandering—defined as off-task thinking—can be disruptive to daily functioning. Mindfulness is considered a potential method for reducing mind-wandering; however, no study has systematically reviewed findings on this topic. The present systematic review synthesizes current findings from this literature, examining whether results vary as a function of study methodology.

Our final sample included n = 15 peer-reviewed studies, with 14 studies describing at least one significant relationship between the two constructs. Study results varied as a function of how constructs were operationalized and type of active control. Mindfulness appears most consistently related to reductions in probe-caught mind-wandering, as well as fewer commission errors and less response time variability on sustained attention tasks. Self-report measures of both constructs were the least consistent in their relation to other measures.

Future research should focus on increasing methodological rigor to confirm results and on identifying facets of mindfulness most effective for decreasing mind-wandering.

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