Stop Paying Attention!

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In the pursuit of better attention skills, don’t strive to completely lock down your mind: Zoning out is a “crucial mental state,” according to research highlighted in Discover (July-Aug. 2009). It might even be critical to contemplating the big picture.

The average mind wanders about 13 percent of the time—a substantial failure of control when you consider that “the human brain is arguably the most complex organ in the natural world,” science essayist Carl Zimmer writes. But when a team of psychologists and neuroscientists loaded people into a type of MRI scanner and asked them to perform a repetitive task, the scientists discovered a potential explanation: People who are zoning out (so deeply they aren’t aware of it until they’re asked) exhibit a signature blast of brain activity, specifically in areas associated with goals, decision making, and long-term thinking.

The researchers hypothesize that zoning out might have evolved as a way for our sophisticated brains to balance immediate goals and needs with more distant, big-picture objectives. “Of course, being permanently zoned out has its downside,” Zimmer writes. The key to a good life might just be “finding the balance between the two, the rhythm that brings harmony to the different time scales at which we live.”