The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Welcome to My Wandering Mind

A while back, I was a retreat where we did a listening exercise. I knew I was in trouble already, because I have trouble listening, but I went along anyway. The idea was to understand three levels of listening: listening to your own thoughts, listening to what’s being said, and awareness of everything around you. The facilitator told us a story less than two minutes long, and was going to ask us questions about it to see how well we listened. Keep in mind, I knew we’d be questioned. Here’s how it went for me:

He starts the story and I see the word “Listen” projected on the screen. That makes me think of a song I wanted listen to on my iPod later. The song made me think about the soundtrack it was part of, which made me think about the movie. Then I thought, “I need to see that movie again.” I tried to imagine my favorite scene, but then I looked out the window and noticed the sky was gray and that it looked like it might rain. I looked down and saw someone’s shoes and thought they were the same color gray as the sky outside, but I really couldn’t tell because I’m partially colorblind and similar shades like that are hard for me …

Then I realized then that the story was winding up. Needless to say, I didn’t raise my hand during questions. My mind had wandered a bit during the story.

I was reminded of that experience when I read that someone is studying why the mind wanders.

One moment you’re paying close attention to a lecture, the next you’re making a mental list of items you need to pick up at the store and wondering who will be at the party on Saturday night. Minds wander, and now a study sheds new light on what happens in the brain when thoughts go astray.

The researchers, led by cognitive psychologist Malia Mason, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School in Boston, began by asking 19 volunteers to perform simple recall tasks such as memorizing a short string of letters and reproducing them in forward or reverse order. Reasoning that minds wander more when the job at hand isn’t very demanding, the researchers had the volunteers practice the tasks for 30 minutes on three consecutive days. During a fourth practice session, the researchers butted in to ask the subjects whether they were having stray thoughts. As expected, they reported more random thoughts when working on a familiar sequences than when grappling with a novel one.

…The study leaves open the question of why minds wander, says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Schooler suspects that mental rambling is generally beneficial. “A lot of the time, people are thinking about worries or problems that they need to work out,” Schooler says, adding that creative insights often happen during these episodes. The new study could be a big help to researchers if it leads to a way to use fMRI to detect mind wandering without interrupting an experimental subject, Schooler says.

I should have signed up for that study, but I’m sure I would have skewed the results, because my mind wanders no matter what I do. In fact, it might even wander more when the The only thing is usually whether I’m aware of it wandering and whether I can bring it back before I miss something important. My guess is that the study’s focused on why the average person’s mind wanders, as opposed to those of us whose minds wander all the time. You know. Those of us with ADD

What do I mean? I tried to describe my experience of the listening exercise to a few other people, but I don’t think they got it, because their brains don’t work the way mine does. Imagine that you’re locked in a room with a television or radio playing very loud. It changes stations randomly. You can’t control it. You can’t turn it off. You cant even turn down the volume. That’s pretty much what it’s like from my experience.

I haven’t seen it portrayed better than the Adult ADD commercial that was aired a few years ago.

There’s a new commercial on TV these days. The commercial is about Adult ADD. The commercial features a woman in a business meeting. She is distracted by images continually running through her mind. It talks about the inability to concentrate and focus. At the end her opinion is sought and she looks up, not knowing what is going on at the meeting. Some members of our forum have described the commercial as an accurate description of the ADD Mind. Theath3 [Ed. Note: That’s me.] says, “To me, it was a completely accurate representation of how my own brain works – like a stream-of-consciousness that I can’t turn off. The way that the random images and sounds were used to show what was going on in the ADD persons head, the way her attention drifted until she was called on in the meeting, at which point she had no idea what was being discussed were things I could completely identify with. My own head is like a constantly running television or radio with no “off” button.”

The commercial’s no longer available online. I guess Eli Lilly (maker of one ADD medication) pulled it offline after its run, but they now have videos of individual adults living with ADD online. There’s also video accompanying this CNN post about one adult living with ADD. (If you watch the video, listen to how he describes how his mind works.)

[Lewis] Alston’s description is typical of patients who deal with ADHD — or ADD, as it’s also called. It’s estimated 4 percent of American adults have the condition and many more cases go undiagnosed. While ADD is most often associated with adolescents, “about 70 percent of people grow into having adult ADD,” says Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, author of “10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD.”

Sarkis, who holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the University of Florida, is one of those adults. She describes the symptoms as “perpetual losing of keys, having problems being organized, feeling just an inner sense of restlessness, not being able to sit through activities that take a lot of brain power.”

Like Alston, she takes medication to control the symptoms and help her focus. “What happens with medicine is when you have ADD you have a low level of a brain chemical called dopamine and taking medicine raises the level back up to where it is in a person without ADD.”

There’s more than a little of my own story in all of them.

I know that’s not what the study was about, but that’s what I thought of when I was reading about it. I guess my mind wandered.


  1. Man, you have described exactly what happens to me in almost every meeting I attend at my company. All it takes is a one-word trigger. Suddenly I’ve missed five minutes of discussion and someone has asked, “What do you think, Sam?” I do my best to bluff through the question, and then within minutes, it’s happening again.

  2. The interesting thing is that I do much better listening in one-on-one situations. It’s still difficult, and takes effort on my part. (But medication probably helps. LOL.)

  3. Ditto. Although my mind still might wander when I’m talking to my sweetie, it’s much more likely to happen in a group. I always had a problem in college and grad school, too. If it weren’t for the help of very good friends who shared notes and helped me study, I never would have passed my comprehensive exams. As it was, I barely did.