We live from moment to moment, existing only in what we call the present, and having only a mental representation of what the past and future are. Do they exist? That really depends on what your definition of ‘past’ or ‘future’ is.
Many people stress the importance of remaining present, to live in the moment, and to not let the mind stray off course. It is an important and much needed message in a world where we have an unlimited number of distractions waiting in our pockets, when we have added expectations regarding productivity, and an endlessly growing wealth of information that we’ll never be able to consume.
Our minds are being bombarded with such a multitude of new data every second that it spends the rest of it’s time disengaged with the world around us so that it can try to put it all together.
That’s the role of the autopilot — maintain enough outside attention to get by, while the mind seeks to store, organize, and prioritize our current goals, ideas, and learnings.
Is that a bad thing? My answer is no, it’s not.
What it Means to Disengage
We have two main brain networks: the default mode (DM) and the central executive (CE). To put it simply, the DM is active when the thoughts in our heads have come from an internal source — mind-wandering, imagination, future planning and so forth. The CE is active whenever our thoughts have come from our senses.
When we disengage with the environment, our CE quietens down while our DM starts up. Our pupils also dilate — this is a reliable indicator of someone in the middle of a daydream. And as has been shown in several studies, daydreaming does occur in a damaging fashion during many types of tasks — most notably to reading.
Some attentional functions remain of course, we need to be able to detect unexpected changes around us. If we didn’t, survival would be hard to come by. But uncontrollable mind-wandering comes at the deficit of external tasks.
Not all tasks, mind you. The majority of the time that daydreaming occurs, the tasks we’re performing require less attentional resources and working memory. As the demands of what we’re doing increase, mind-wandering decreases.
Reading is easy for most of us, and this lower cognitive requirement permits daydreaming. Speeding down a hill on a motorbike with no breaks? I’m sure we’d all be paying attention.
Many tasks that impose low demands do so because we’ve become experts at them. For those that can drive with little focus, it’s because the actions have become habits. When we start learning something new, we need to manipulate all the new pieces of information in our working memory, which has a limited capacity. To get around this, our minds use practice and repetition to transfer these skills into a long-term and automatic form of memory, so we need not think about them anymore.
When our working memory is free, in comes the mind-wandering, while our autopilot sufficiently takes over the task.
The Benefits to Your Autopilot
Our minds are not lazy. This idea that to be on autopilot is to be mindless is very misleading.
When we mind-wander — whether it’s with or without awareness — we are filled with thoughts, a large network of brain activity bursts to life, and our inner world consumes our moment of being.
Sure, we could master certain actions, and instead of daydreaming when we do them, we could be present, and take part in it even though we don’t need to. But there’s a good reason we don’t do that, and it’s an important function of the brain that evolutionarily speaking, is quite young.
Most of our spontaneous thoughts are closely linked to our current concerns — they’re dreams about finishing things that we started but didn’t get all the way through; they’re thoughts about what our future holds; and visualizations of the ways in which we want to get there.
Our wandering minds are also important in memory consolidation, just as in sleep. We should all know by now that we’re not recording devices, and in order for us to remember something long-term, we need to practice it. Mind-wandering helps by running through what we’ve learned and connecting it to other pieces of information, strengthening its bonds.
Something special can happen during this process of making connections: insight. Everyone knows about the flash of the metaphorical light bulb, we have our a-ha moments when we least expect them. Why do we least expect them? Because we’re not working on the problem anymore … But that is exactly when we start to mind wander, and our minds start to form connections between disparate ideas so that we can keep this new information in memory. Suddenly, our subconscious hits on a connection that sparks a realization.
Daydreaming is the force behind the mystical ‘incubation’ period of creativity. It is this way because of its openness to creating links that we’d have not seen or thought of. Why would we not have thought of them? Again, the answer lies in working memory: We have a small conscious workspace, only a few tools can be used at a time. We are in essence focused attention. The unconscious mind suffers no such fate, and is able to build intricate webs of knowledge with little limit for space.
Most people want to become more present and in the moment to do one thing: Stop mind-wandering. They don’t enjoy disengaging, see it as a distraction, as lacking focus, and as unnecessary.
And it can be all of those things. But, that is simply what it has been reduced to. The wandering mind is being set up to fail in an age of productivity and information overload, it’s true purpose is being rendered irrelevant.
There is a middle ground here.
You need to be able to focus when you read, take a test, talk to someone, or have to work. These type of times require our attention, and drifting off to another dimension doesn’t help. There is a third network in the brain, known as the salience network (SN), whose role it is to direct our attention to important events, whether they are from the external or internal worlds.
Mindfulness might seem to be in direct opposition to mind wandering, at it can be if your definition of mindfulness is to remain present at all times. But in terms of mindful meditation, something you set aside time for but don’t try to impose on all your time, the two can exist in a remarkably cooperative way.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to strengthen the SN. It promotes a harmonious relationship between the DM and CE, so that we maintain greater awareness and control.
Using mindfulness meditation doesn’t mean you should strive to be present all the time. Our minds do a beautiful thing when they automate tasks, so that we can do them with little thought or effort — they allow us time to reflect, predict, visualize, problem solve, memorize, create, and decipher meaning from our experiences.
If the past and the future do exist, they exist here, in our internal thoughts. This vast mental ability is where our entire lives merge together to create a whole.