The Science of Zoning Out

By Carl Zimmer | June 15, 2009 5:30 pm

Mind wandering is the subject of my new column for Discover. Far from just useless mental static, mind-wandering actually creates a distinctive pattern of activity in our brains–a pattern that suggests that it may actually be playing a crucial role in our mental life. Check it out.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (9)

  1. johnk

    Very interesting.

    One thing that fascinates me is why our mind is such a singular, serial processor. Why can’t one part of the mind wander, doing the magic stuff it does, while another part is attentive and doesn’t get scolded by the teacher?

  2. John Grigni

    In the article this links to, I wonder why they didn’t try their experiment on people in different tpes of situations. Problem solving, trying to solve something insolvable, writing blog comments. I suppose the set-up for monitoring a group would be complicated, but during a conversation, for instance. Especially the person speaking. Or while exercising (walking, jogging, not sports) – I zone out the moment I start.
    Also, if they tried comparing an individual’s frequency of zoning out instances to any other individual factors, like IQ, amount of sleep, personal stress level.

  3. Technolinguist

    johnk: isn’t part of the problem the fact that our brain does have multiple parts? Remember that in the first study cited in the article, the students pressed a key when they realized that their minds were wandering. In my own anecdotal (and therefore not scientifically valid) experience, I have had to read paragraphs over and over because my mind stopped paying attention to the reading. Oh, I actually read the words – but I wasn’t paying attention to the part of my brain doing that work.

    I don’t know the accuracy, but I went to a seminar on thought processes (given by a non-scientist – this was about creativity and productivity – so perhaps take this with a grain of salt) but the analogy given there was that our brain has different methods of processing in parallel; high-speed, attention-grabbing “chatty” processing (but low-bandwidth), and larger-concept, slow, background processing.

    I should probably finish reading Zimmer’s full article before posting this stuff since it’s potentially a huge load of crap, I’ve only read the first page — but this is all apropos given the topic. :)

  4. My mind wandered…lonely as a clou…just after Carl’s first letter, of his first word, of his written piece, only for it to come back, at the last letter, of his last word in the same piece.

    I am incedently joking here. Kewl stuff.

    No where was I…


  5. John Grigni

    Technolinguist: Multiple parts, each with a specialty, but only one point of focus to share between them, at least for higher abstract thoughts (or we would all be unable to walk any real distance, and dead).
    Now I’m going out on a limb here, but part of that focus is acquiring new skills, and ‘encoding’ them so we no longer need to think about them. Most adults don’t struggle with walking, driving, reading (as in the experiment), even answering polite ‘chatty’ questions (how are you, fine thanks, have a nice day, it is lovely isn’t it, Hi I’m John). We only have to think when we get to an obstacle outside of the encoded skill set (a fence, a traffic accident, unusual style or content).
    I’m scooting further out on the limb and saying this is to conserve resources. ‘Paying’ attention indeed!

  6. Forgot this…
    My infant teacher wacked me across the head in class, because I zoned out too much in lesson at school. This stayed with me ever since, and I still like teachers!

  7. johnk

    I think John Grigni is almost totally right.

    But a few variations:
    1. The conscious focus (attention) is not only for acquiring new skills. Its also for decision making. When there is a fork in the road, which way do I go? What’s the best strategy?
    2. Consciousness (attention) is also necessary for thinking about things that aren’t present, like imagining the results of certain actions.
    3. I don’t think “conserve resources” captures the purpose of singular conscious attention. As John points out, some processes can be carried out without attention. Clearly, the brain is doing the non-attentive jobs, and this takes brain resources. Why couldn’t there be parallel attentive awareness of these activities?

  8. MartyM

    What if I zone out 5.4 times in 10 minutes instead of 45? Most of my zoning is a tangent on what I’m reading. So the analogy of zoning out while driving through a busy intersection led me to think of this guy I followed to work this morning. He stopped at one red light, but blew through the next one a few feet away. That led to some “what if” fantasy entailing an actual accident. There was no accident, but I zone out into a made up one.

    I know, I’m strange.

  9. What an interesting topic for a science fair project. Kids can look at what causes the brain to “zone out” and if causal factors can be identified and eliminated to prevent classroom zoning out.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


See More

Collapse bottom bar