Wandering Mind Linked With Greater Working Memory, Study Finds

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If you find your mind wandering as you complete tasks during the day -- thinking about what you'll make for dinner as you're reading through this article, for instance -- it could actually be saying something about your memory, new research suggests.

A study in the journal Psychological Science shows that people whose minds wander during simple tasks may actually have a higher capacity for working memory. Working memory is what enables us to think about multiple things at once, and has been linked with intelligence (such as IQ score and reading comprehension).

That may be because "people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing," study researcher Jonathan Smallwood, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, said in a statement.

For the study, researchers had study participants do one of two tasks. One task was to press a button when they saw a certain letter come across a screen. The second task was to tap in sync with their own breathing. The researchers checked in from time to time with the study participants as they completed the two tasks, in order to see if their minds were wandering.

Then, the researchers tested the study participants' working memory by having them complete a task where they had to recall alphabet letters that had been mixed in with simple math questions.

The researchers found that the people whose minds wandered during the first task were also the ones who had a greater working memory.

"Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life -- when they're on the bus, when they're cycling to work, when they're in the shower -- are probably supported by working memory," Smallwood said in the statement. "Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems."

However, that's not to say that your mind can't wander completely off the path (we've all had those times where we've had to re-read a page several times to fully comprehend it!). Researchers said that's because we have to be focused on using our working memory to remember the initial task, lest we forget our goal was in the first place.

A past study from New York University researchers showed that daydreaming -- or at least taking a pause to give your mind a break -- actually was good for the brain's memory-making abilities, MSNBC reported.

"Our data suggests that if you are not allowing yourself, not giving yourself a break, it is costly," study researcher Lila Davachi, assistant professor of NYU's Department of Psychology and Center for Neuroscience, told MSNBC. "It's possible you are hindering your brain's ability to consolidate memories and experiences."

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