Chapter 3.1—Mind Wandering

Prior to a game-changing bit of research in 2009(1), most of the research on our little corner of the mind was focused on mind-wandering, daydreaming, and generalized attention issues.

The research had determined that (simplified for our purposes) the brain has two basic functioning networks when we’re conscious: a Task-Positive Network and a Default Network.


Task-positive Network  Default Network
active thinking daydreaming
attending spontaneous mind-wandering
goal-directed cognition which…
problem-solving*               …leads to fidgeting

If you read up on these two you may start to feel the need to defend our friend the Default Network as the research discussions range from debates on whether it’s meaningful at all to have these definitions to whether the Default Network is implicated in advancing Alzheimer’s (as well as discussions about Autism and ADHD).

For us, however, this little definitional breakdown is useful for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that the Default Network “is negatively correlated with brain systems that focus on external visual signals.” (2) That is why I keep harping on the automaticity of knitting, crochet, doodling, as well as other handicrafts that can be done (a) automatically and (b) without looking—without taxing our visual cortex. If we have to look at what we’re doing and think about it (e.g., knitting or crocheting lace, learning a new Tangle for a Zentagle mandala) then we’re moving into the Task-positive Network and we’re no longer able to concentrate on the boring meeting or the conference call. Too much of our mind is being used if we’re both moving our hands and needing to watch what we’re doing.

Vanessa at MixedMartialArtsAndCrafts and I Tweeted back and forth this weekend about whether gaming (RPGs, etc.) would allow someone to derive the benefits of Cognitive Anchoring or not. That visual cortex issue above explains my answer—are you playing a game where you no longer see the terrain? Do you know it like the back of your hand? Then that game probably lets you get into a zone where you can pay attention to something you’re listening to. However, if you have to pay attention to what you’re seeing, then you’re probably not able to pay attention to what you’re hearing—and importantly, you’re not creating something tangible that you can look back on later.

More than one commenter has mentioned the phenomenon knitters and crocheters and doodlers experience—looking at something they created and having clear auditory and/or factual recall of what they heard/learned while they were knitting, crocheting, or doodling. If you’re gaming, you’re not creating the same way (unless—maybe—if it’s a sandbox game like Minecraft, but that’s a whole other conversation).

Back to our brain research.

I’m going to make some generalizations and, as always, feel free to disagree/comment down below, but I’m going to put these out there for now:

  • Bosses want efficient workers.
  • Most of us want to please—to be good and efficient (at whatever we do).
  • People tend to be better and more efficient workers when they’re happy and fulfilled.
  • It’s hard to be happy or fulfilled when stressed and overtaxed and over-meeting’d—and bored.
  • An abundance of meetings (and now conference calls) is detrimental to efficiency, creativity, and happiness.

There was a recent article on how we don’t really like or want creative types around us at work. I leave that to you to debate. But, for fun, I thought those of you who have had to suffer endless conference calls might appreciate this:

Okay, back to work.

If we take my bullets above as read, then managers (and parents, and teachers) should want to encourage behaviors that keep their workers (and children, and students) efficient—and to do that, they need to keep everyone happy.

But over and over I hear (do you?) stories of people in meetings or classes who are told, sternly, “we can wait until you’re ready to pay attention” when someone is doodling or knitting.

No one is happy when this happens.

But we are happier when we knit—because we know we’re paying attention.

Some studies have found that we spend nearly 50% of waking hours breaking in and out of mind-wandering (3) described by the researchers as the “decoupling of attention from an immediate task-context toward unrelated concerns.” (4)

In other words, we spend a lot of time making grocery lists when we are trying to pay attention in staff meetings or when we should be writing curriculum. (ahem)

Look at that number again.



For years these studies focused on the negative side of this statistic, like they found that this kind of mind-wandering—this spontaneous decoupling from a task you should be doing—can be a harbinger of a downturn in your mood.

Of course it is. We want to be good kids, but we’re having trouble
shutting Monkey Mind off. We want to knit or doodle, but we get yelled
at when we do. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. So we don’t.
And that puts us in a lousy mood.


One of the articles in Science was titled: “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind” (Killingsworth et al, 2010).

What this means to me is that knitters are—wisely—self-medicating!
keep calm and carry yarn

Shawn Achor led me to that conclusion.

Before we dive into what Shawn found, a brief review:

If you are given a task

(boring meeting)

and experience an uncontrolled shift—a “spontaneously decoupling and wandering mind”

(grocery list thinking)

you are more likely to be heading into a bad mood—the wandering mind is the bad-mood-warning-sign—rather than a good, productive mood.

Benefit Cycle

Which means you will be more likely to leave the meeting ticked off and frustrated —>

which leads to lower work-performance overall as proven by other studies.

Shawn Achor TED talk

Shawn Achor, in his TED talk called The Happy Secret to Better Work, said:

happiness is predicted by the way your brain processes the world.

We are told by others:

if you work harder you’ll be more successful and if you’re more successful you’ll be happier.

But Achor says that’s backwards

because every time your brain senses a success… it moves the goal post.


if you can raise your positivity in the present (like by lifting your mood with knitting or doodling) you get what Achor calls a “positive advantage” that gives you a boost in productivity.

His research shows that when your mind is in a positive place you are 31% more productive—salespeople make 37% more sales—doctors are 19% faster and more accurate at diagnosing their patients.

Become positive in the present to make your brain work even more successfully.

That positivity releases Dopamine.

Dopamine makes you happier and turns on the learning centers in your brain.

When you knit, you’re happy.

When you’re happy you can learn more and work better and faster.

This makes you more—potentially—productive in your life.

More work gets done.

More happy bosses.

And a more happy you — because now you can knit, crochet, or doodle in meetings.

Because now we can prove that minds work better by cognitively anchoring us to our surroundings by engaging in an automatic, physical task—especially ones that keep us happy.

And knitting, crocheting, doodling, spinning—are very happy-making.


*We’ll talk more later about the problem solving bit. I don’t buy for a second that it only fits into this one category, do you?


(1) Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do? Applied CognitivePsychology, 24: 100–106. doi: 10.1002/acp.1561.

(2) Buckner, R. L.; Andrews-Hanna, J. R.; Schacter, D. L. (2008). “The Brain’s Default Network: Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1124 (1): 1–38.doi:10.1196/annals.1440.011PMID 18400922.

(3) The Costs and Benefits of Mind-Wandering: A Review; Author: Mooneyham, Benjamin W; Schooler, Jonathan W; Publication info: Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 67.1 (Mar 2013): 11-8. QuotingSmallwood, J., &Schooler, J. W. (2006). The restless mind. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 946-958. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.946, and, Schooler, J. W., Smallwood, J., Christoff, Handy, T. C, Reichle, E. D., & Sayette, M. A. (2011). Meta- awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2011.05.006

(4) The Costs and Benefits of Mind-Wandering: A Review; Author: Mooneyham, Benjamin W; Schooler, Jonathan W Publication info: Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 67.1 (Mar 2013): 11-8. Quoting: Killingsworth, M.A., &Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932. doi:10.1126/science.H92439, and, Klinger, E. C. (1999). Thought flow: Properties and mechanisms underlying shifts in content. In J. A. Singer &P.

Articles Consulted:

Carriere, J. S. A., Seli, P., & Smilek, D. (2013). Wandering in both mind and body: Individual differences in mind wandering and inattention predict fidgeting. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67(1), 19-31. Retrieved from

Dixon, P., & Bortolussi, M. (2013). Construction, integration, and mind wandering in reading. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67(1), 1-10. Retrieved from

McVay, J. C., Kane, M. J., & Kwapil, T. R. (2009). Tracking the train of thought from the laboratory into everyday life: An experience-sampling study of mind wandering across controlled and ecological contexts. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (Pre-2011), 16(5), 857-63. Retrieved from


  1. You mention the visual distraction of gaming detracting from what one is listening to. Is the flip-side the old “turn down the radio so I can find the street/address/etc I’m looking for” while driving?

    • I think it must be.
      I’ve been looking for the article where I first read it, but it was related to the “buckets” concept of memory. That we can only process ‘just so much’ and once it tips over that limit, we need to stop or remove one of the processes.

      And the older I get, the more that happens… Though new research is saying that’s not because of age as much as it is because there’s so much stuff “already on the hard drive” as it were.

  2. Thinking more about our limited Twitter convo, I only really paid attention to the podcasts when I was just moving through video game terrain. As long as it’s just me walking forward to get from point a to b, I can “hear” what’s being said. As soon as a bad guy jumped out at me, I stopped listening.

    • See! Without even knowing it, you were doing what your brain was telling you! Right up there with Andrea’s “turn down the radio so I can find the address!”

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