When daydreaming strikes! Mind wandering and ADHD

Have you ever been in a meeting but your thoughts take you somewhere else? This could be ‘mind wandering’. But what is mind wandering, and how is it related to ADHD?

Mind wandering occurs when someone’s mind drifts away from the task they are focused on and instead focuses on task-unrelated thoughts and images. This happens to everyone from time to time, and there is some evidence that it makes up  50% of most people’s daily thinking time. A wandering mind isn’t always a bad thing, as some forms of mind wandering can be beneficial. This could include thinking about planning an important project while driving a car for example.

Reflecting on how to do things better in future is important, but some forms of mind wandering can be detrimental. Spontaneous uncontrolled thoughts that interfere with important tasks, such as listening to someone speak or working heavy machinery are good examples of this. These two different types of mind wandering, beneficial and detrimental, have been called deliberate and spontaneous mind wandering, respectively.

Isn’t this just ‘thinking’?

There are actually different ‘types’ of thought, which can be clearly distinguished.  Mind wandering is different from ‘rumination’ which is thinking about one specific thing. Both mind wandering and rumination tend to be independent of what’s going on around us and unrelated to any current tasks we might be doing. Mind wandering however isn’t fixed on one thought; thoughts can ‘move hither and thither’, from topic to topic.

How does this relate to ADHD? ADHD and mind wandering are very much linked. Spontaneous mind wandering, the form that is detrimental to engaging in tasks, has been proposed as a reason explaining many of the symptoms and impairments of ADHD.

The brain and mind wandering

The brain works in ‘networks’ of connected brain areas which control our thoughts and behaviours. One of these brain networks is called the default mode network (DMN). This network, sometimes called the ‘daydreaming network’, is activated during the resting state, when a person is awake, but in a daydreaming state.

The DMN is usually switched off by another brain network when you have to start a task. When you start a task, the ‘task-positive network’ or TPN switches on and shuts down the daydreaming part of the brain, the DMN. But…. in ADHD the DMN seems to not switch off properly during a task when the TPN switches on, leading to daydreaming when someone is meant to be focussed on a task.

This can obviously be a problem. In fact, one study reported that mind wandering alone provides a better prediction of ADHD-associated problems than the traditional ADHD symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity. A test for mind wandering, called the MEWS, has even been suggested to be a useful tool in screening for ADHD.

If you find your mind wandering, you might find it helps to remove distractions such as mobile phones, take regular breaks to allow your mind to wander outside of performing tasks or if your mind wanders while in a meeting or conversation, remember it’s OK to say “Sorry I was somewhere else then”.

Authors: James Brown PhD and Alex Conner PhD.

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