Everything you can imagine is real. – Pablo Picasso
I like to say that if I start my day by waking up, then it’s a good day. But today, in particular, was an especially good day.
Yes, my peanut butter and jelly sandwich was on point. Yes, I found a missing sock that had eluded me for months. But really, what makes today so great is that I passed the third and final portion of my candidacy exam.
I have officially proven I am “worthy” to get a PhD.
This final component of the process was a 2-hour, oral defense, where seated in front of four of OSU’s most esteemed faculty, I
was quizzed on anything within the realm of social psychology.
And even though I knew the rest of my life depended on satisfactorily answering their questions, throughout the defense, I often found my mind wandering to other topics— how great my tie looked, a young woman I have become fond of.
And even though I knew full well that I needed to focus on their questions to comprehend them (let alone devise a suitable response), my mind nonetheless wandered to comparatively unimportant topics.
A few years back, researchers developed an app to better study this phenomenon of mind wandering. That is, they created an app that would periodically text participants a message to ask them how relevant their current thoughts were to their activity at hand.
And amazingly, the researchers found that during any and all activities (e.g., eating, shopping, making love), people’s minds wandered to irrelevant thoughts about 47% of the time. That means, because you’ve already read 50% of this post, you’ve likely thought about a number of things that weren’t my engagingly crafted words.
But why are we constantly diverting our attention?
Often times, we let our minds wander to think about other scenarios that generate a particular emotion. For instance, our minds will turn to past moments of glory (or even fictional ones) because these thoughts actually stimulate the emotions associated with them.
For example, by imagining how I save these four professors by rushing them out of the room right before the meteor crashes into the window, I actually feel that positive emotion (e.g., the praise for saving their lives, the joy at not having to finish the test, etc.) that would have been elicited if the event were real.
At the same time, our minds also wander to negative memories or upcoming responsibilities, because we want to simulate those emotions that encourages we don’t repeat that bad behavior, or simulate the emotions that will motivate us to actually do the task ahead.
In this way, we’re very much like rats just pushing a lever (i.e., imagining other situations) to get a reward (e.g., that positive emotion). Except that lever is in our heads—and one you shouldn’t press when professors are asking you for the probability that you would get a significant alpha value for the reversal of an effect at 50% power.
What? You don’t know what that means? Don’t worry—apparently that’s not a question you need to answer correctly in order to pass your candidacy exam.
Buckner, R. L., & Carroll, D. C. (2007). Self-projection and the brain. Trends in cognitive sciences, 11(2), 49-57.
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.