Wait, What's That? The Science Behind Why Your Mind Keeps Wandering

If you're experiencing an attention deficit, you're far from alone.

Try this: Count your exhalations—1, 2, 3—all the way to 10. See if you can get to 10 without thinking about lunch or laundry or deadlines or dates.

Unless you've trained your attention, it'll probably start to wander—which, new research into the brain suggests, begins at a physical level.

"Your neurons can fire for a while with the energy they have in them, but not for long: After a dozen seconds, each needs more energy," research psychologist Peter Killeen tells Fast Company.

After those first dozen seconds, ever-hungry neurons order up stored-up energy. If they don't get the glucose or lactate they need—two of their favorite fuels—they'll fire more slowly.

If your brain doesn't have enough energy available, you'll have a worse shot at keeping track of those breaths. You'll experience a deficit in your attention.

Which is fitting, given that KIlleen's insights spring from his studies in attention deficit disorder. According to his and his colleagues' research, people with and without ADHD have attentional behavior that's different in degree, not in kind. It's a spectrum, similar to how hetero- and homo-sexuality or introversion or extroversion lie along gradients.

In this way, everybody has at least a little ADHD.

"You put anybody on one of these kid's tests (for ADHD) and everybody's performance gets worse over time (on a given task)," he explains. "We’re better able to pull up the neuroenergy and they're not."

THE WAY IT WORKS

The technical name for KIlleen and his colleagues' framework is the Neuroenergetic Theory.

If we grossly simplify the process, it looks like this:

  • After 12 seconds of effort, your neurons are running on empty.
  • They first look to glial cells for lactate, a readily used sugar.
  • If glial cells can't find lactate, they look for glycogen, which they store up at night and later convert to energy.

If your neurons can't find lactate or glycogen, they get exhausted—enabling other parts of your brain to call for attention. It's sort of like your brain is a super-excited third-grade classroom: The star student—that is, whatever you're trying to focus on—will get most of your attention. And if the star student got enough to eat and enough rest, it can be called on periodically throughout the day. If not, other excitable parts of your brain will get your attention. Then your mind will start to wander.

How to work with the wandering

If you've ever tried mindfulness meditation—and you have by now, given our opening paragraph—this news won't be entirely surprising. Our minds tend to wander (and a wandering mind can be dangerous—like if you're contemplating your way in a moving car. The key, as Killeen explains, is to cooperate with mental movements.

One of the first keys, he says, is to recognize that you have a finite attentional window—and structure your workflow to be congruent with that capacity. This speaks to how we've talked about how work is a series of sprints—and to be our most productive and most creative, we need to unplug throughout our workdays.

"A lot of successful ADHD people and successful people in general recognize that, 'I can’t pay attention to this any longer or do it at that rate," he says. "I'll switch to this other task right now and get a fresh start. Then I’ll get back to this as soon as I’ve given my brain a rest."

But doing nothing isn't the only option. As banker-neurologist John Coates notes in the Hour Between Dog And Wolf, other research has shown that switching tasks can defray your mental fatigue.

Additionally, Killeen notes, you can look at the same problem in a different way: if you're attacking a problem, try flanking it with an analogy. What if the problem were a painting? A cloud? What associations can you make? That free association, as we've learned from Stanford professor Tina Seelig, is a catalyst of innovation.

But a wandering attention can be a good thing, too.

You can use the wandering to your advantage. How? If you have a creative profession—creator, artist, scientist, entrepreneur—and a creative environment, you can leverage the wandering.

Say you're toiling away at a logical task and start to get worn down. Instead of toughing it out, step away and start thinking in nontraditional ways: What if the problem were a chipmunk? What if it were a cloud? Let your mind wander and analogize, Killeen says—so long as you're not walking down the sidewalk and about to step in front of a car.

"It's a way of being creative," he says. "It's a way of giving the linear programming, engineering, hard-core good stuff of the brain a break."

[Image: Flickr user Mark Rowland]

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18 Comments

  • slrman

    It isn't that difficult. The article also ignores the ability of the brain to multi task.

  • It took me half an hour to read this! I've put my mind to it and did it! Now this was interesting but I hoepd to know more after such struggle! But thanks for putting out the problem... Coz I didn't know I have!

  • It's helpful knowing the "why" behind our need to bounce from one thing to another. I've heard from several different experts that scheduling your day into blocks of 50 minutes of productivity and 10 minutes of rest/distraction can greatly improve productivity. I'm not sure if the 50/10 breakdown is optimal for everyone but it's a good idea to play around with different durations so you can create a schedule specific to your own thresholds.

  • Brian Hermelijn

    Interesting. While I do not have a problem with wandering (been doing meditation), I still found that this article was a good read.

  • Karel G J Kindt

    KAREL G J KINDT
    Try to read with a clear mind the works of Aristoteles, or easier Aristoteles for Managers , but do it movingwalking in the forest that  moves also your mind

  • Fender Sina Stargazer

    Great article, even though short but it took me over 10 minutes to read it. I am also a victim of wandering too much while trying to get things done. The only time I don't wander too much is when I am under pressure. I work as a waiter in a busy restaurant and I've figured that that is the only time my mind stops wandering because of amount of work and the fact that it is a fast pace environment. Few things I can take from this article is 1. attacking problems as if they were clouds, chipmunk and in a nontraditional way. 2. being more creative on thinking how others would solve that problem.

    Short: Lately I've discovered that I am not as creative as I wish to be even though I dream and think a lot about cool things. Any tips to be more creative and not being practical?

  • Craigb19707

    I think it's a little demeaning to sufferers of ADHD to say that everyone has some degree of it  ADHD is a disability, requiring specialist teaching. A wandering mind is just that - an untrained, wandering mind. I also disagree that the mind needs to wander to be creative & productive. Mindfulness meditation always starts by acknowledging a thought and letting it go, bringing the focus back to the breath and/or a single object, vision or idea eg, candle flame, Buddha statue, Metta (universal love). H.H The Dalai Lama, The Panchen Lama, even everyday monks have great wisdom, intellect and creativity, they practice mindfulness regularly, and monks will often create the most beautiful, perfect madalas with coloured rice flour in the sand, in total silence whilst meditating for many hours. But you say mindfulness and creativity do not go together? The Dalai Lama speaks numerous languages, has a doctorate in physics (I forget which type), can recite enormous ancient texts etc. He is surely one of the wisest, most accomplished beings of mindfulness currently alive but it certainly doesn't distract anything from his scientific, creative, productive mind & life. 

  • Malachi

    I don't like hearing or reading anything anything that downplays the seriousness of ADHD. It's no different than downplaying the seriousness of depression. ADHD is something people suffer with. It destroys relationships, families, a large population of people in jail or on drugs are good people with ADHD.   

    Would you have written an article entitled, "...everybody has at least a little Depression?" or WAIT, WHAT'S THAT? THE SCIENCE OF BEING DEPRESSED?

    My wife attends a support group so she can understand my ADHD, and it keeps her sane!  Most successful people with ADHD have someone close to them that supports them....hard to do alone

    you can learn more about ADHD here http://www.adhdandyou.com

  • Jules Weiss

    There's a big difference between experiencing variable levels of attention as our stimuli change (observing that attention is not always optimal) and having ADHD. Frankly I find the quote "everyone has a little ADHD" offensive, and incorrect, by definition.

    I suppose you might also say we're all a little anorexic, too?

    I don't mind when people joke about ADHD (comments below still made me chuckle), but Drake Baer/Fast Company should have known better than to publish Peter Killeen's silly quote.

    Otherwise, great article;).

  • Grsbnt

    the co.design ad on the side of your page made it almost impossible to read the article..wheather one has adhd or not..i right clicked the ad hoping to find an option to make it disappear...when I did...mcafee & kaspersky both sent warnings & shut down my internet...not cool folks.

  • Andrew Tarvin

    Great tips on dealing with focus. Attacking the problem through analogy can be a great to come up with more creative solutions. One of my favorites is to try solving the problem as if I were a certain character or person. How would this problem be solved by Einstein? Steve Jobs? Bugs Bunny? The Hulk?

  • Nat Scientist

    Maybe you should try mind-less meditation; and the difficulty in your perception of mind-full will become more obvious. If you are still thinking, it must be too difficult for now. You will awake when it comes easy, or not at all.

  • Marcus

    I tried to read this article, but halfway through I couldn't stop thinking about porn.

  • Sara LaMothe

    "What if it were a chipmunk?" Lol..I really enjoyed this article..good stuff!

  • Stevefaulkner

    This is really helpful as I am a performer and need to spend half of my day in creative mode and half of my day in admin mode. It's very challenging to swap between the two, but once I do I wake up and feel energised. The secret for me is to set alarms for changing roles or I will just stay on the same thing and become gradually fatigued and unproductive. Also unplugging from email etc has made me far more creative as each interruption means loosing flow.

  • Anna

    When you lose something you are 'losing' it, not 'loosing' it. This spelling mistake seems to have become so common on the internet!