March 23, 2007 -- The mind may wander 30% of the time, a new study shows.
The study comes from researchers including Michael Kane, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Kane's team studied 124 undergraduates at the university.
First, the students took memory tests. They looked at a word list, then later were asked to recall it after doing distracting tasks, such as math work, proofreading, or analyzing a grid.
Next, the researchers gave the students personal digital assistants (PDAs) to wear for a week.
The PDAs beeped eight times a day, prompting the students to answer a series of questions about what they were doing, what they were thinking about, and how they were feeling immediately before the PDA beeped.
Student responses to the PDA survey show their minds wandered from their tasks 30% of the time, on average. However, there was wide variation -- from a low of no mind wandering reported to a high of 92% of the time.
Those with poorer scores on the memory test were particularly likely to report wandering minds, especially during challenging tasks.
Overall, mind wandering tended to happen when the students were tired, stressed, dealing with what they considered to be chaotic situations, and during boring or unpleasant activities, including schoolwork.
Their minds wandered less "when they felt happy and competent, when they concentrated, and during enjoyable activities," the researchers write.
Where the Mind Goes When It Wanders
On their PDAs, the students reported what they were thinking about when their minds wandered.
Specifically, the PDA quiz asked if they were daydreaming or fantasizing, worrying, or thinking about everyday things.
"Their off-task thoughts focused most on everyday things, significantly less on fantasies, and still less on worries," the researchers report. "Mind wandering about typical events and plans was a common experience, but its frequency varied widely among subjects."
The study is scheduled for publication in July's edition of Psychological Science.