Tracking Mind-Wandering

Does your mind stray? Do you daydream often?

I do, or at least it seems like I do. But according to this Matt Killingsworth TED talk, people think about something other than what they’re doing 47% of the time. So maybe I’m not unique in that regard.

Is mind-wandering a good or bad thing?  If a diverted focus causes you to be less productive, or worse, have an accident, it can clearly be detrimental.

But what if it doesn’t alter your performance? What if your mind strays, but it doesn’t change you outwardly? What inward impact might it have?

According to Killingsworth’s research, the effect tends to be slightly negative on people’s mood:

While most people think of mind-wandering as a lifting escape from daily drudgery, the Track Your Happiness data shows that this may not the case. In fact, mind-wandering appears to be correlated with unhappiness. When people were mind-wandering, they reported feeling happy only 56% of the time. Meanwhile, when they were focused on the present moment, they reported feeling happy 66% of the time. This effect was true regardless of the activity the person was doing — be it waiting in a traffic jam or eating a delicious dinner.

In my opinion, Killingsworth’s presentation over-dramatizes the impact mind wandering has on happiness scores.  For those thinking about something pleasant (other than their present activity), the happiness scores are virtually the same.  The scores for those mind-wandering on neutral thoughts is only slightly lower (59% versus 66%).  Only those dwelling on unpleasant topics had a significantly lower happiness scores than those focusing on the present (42% versus 66%).

It’s not surprising to hear that people are less upbeat when they are stressing out over something negative.

Nonetheless, this is interesting research and a reminder that sometimes being occupied with your work (or play) is a good way to mentally crowd out unnecessary anxiety.

Trumpet Solo: “Panis Angelicus”

I play the trumpet, at the intermediate level. Here I am recently performing at church:

I frequently accompany congregational hymns at church.  But I don’t often perform as a soloist, which is quite different, according to my nerves. There’s nothing to hide behind when you’re center stage.

“Panis Angelicus” is a hymn originally written by St. Thomas Aquinas.  César Franck composed this version of the hymn, often called “O Lord Most Holy,” in 1872.

Watching Tennessee Football From The Sky

On 31 August 2014, I attended the University of Tennessee’s season opener against Utah State.  I had a rare treat: a friend hooked me up with a skybox pass.  A few pictures from the evening.

Pride of the Southland Band pregame march

I arrived at the stadium (after a lengthy walk) about 1 hour 40 minutes before kickoff. The sky was threatening rain, but it was still dry.

A sea of orange

An hour before the game I met my friend at Gate 26 (the east side skyboxes).  It was starting to sprinkle.  I had my ticket scanned, walked a few feet to the elevators, and was whisked up to the fifth level.

Looking east toward downtown from the fifth level

The skybox area is considerably less crowded than the stadium.  There’s a large common foyer area in the middle where hosts serve free snacks, salads, desserts, and drinks.  It’s much better than the concession stands.

A rain shower rolled through about 40 minutes before kickoff.  It remained dry in the box.

Rain shower

The rain stopped after several minutes, and it remained dry for most of rest of the night.

Pride of the Southland Band pregame performance

Tennessee Volunteers running through the “T”

Our skybox had a sink, counter space, and a refrigerator (not pictured).

Inside the skybox

With Keith, my college roommate

I enjoyed watching the game above the unwashed masses.  My only issue is that you feel somewhat removed from the stadium experience, particularly the sounds.  A few minutes into the first quarter we opened the one window that you can open, and that allowed some noise in, but it still seemed detached from the stands.

Apart from that, it was an enjoyable experience.  I’d love to do it again.

Adopting A Single Global Time Zone

Matthew Yglesias argues in favor of abolishing time zones.

Time zones are a recent creation. Through most of human history, time was kept locally, based on the solar noon.  This worked well enough, as long as most people stayed put.  Or if they traveled, traveled slowly.

But by the mid-1800s, thanks to the railroad and telegraph,  people were communicating and traveling much greater distances in a day.  Now local time differences were much more noticeable, as this table illustrates:

 

Comparative Time Table

Dinsmore (1857) – Dinsmore’s American Railroad and Steam Navigation Guide and Route-Book

You can see, for example, that the time in Knoxville, TN, was 12 minutes later than it was in Nashville, TN.

The table claims this is an “easy calculation,” but it seems like a hassle to me.  And it was for the people living then, too.  So in 1884 international representatives agreed upon an international system of  standardized time based on the Greenwich Meridian.

Although our current time system is much simpler than before, it still has quirks, as this video amusingly highlights:

If you’re a computer programmer who has to account for time differences, or a frequent traveler, or someone who routinely communicates over long distances, the two dozen plus time zones are confusing.  Thus the above proposal to eliminate all the time zones in favor of a single, universal time.

But most people don’t conduct much business over great distances.  The bulk of their daily interaction is local.  The present time zone arrangement is only an occasional nuisance.  It’s a (seemingly) bigger hassle to adapt to a “new” system of time.  Which is why I don’t foresee this change coming anytime soon.

I’m in the minority of people who are in favor of a single time zone.  It’s more rational, but admittedly it’s not without its drawbacks.

For me, the most difficult adjustment would be with the changing of the civil day. Whereas now the day ends at midnight local time, under a universal time zone, it would end at various stages of the solar day, depending on your location.  If GMT was adopted as the standard, the calendar day in the Eastern United States  would end at what is currently 7 p.m. This would feel odd, particularly during the summer, when it’s still daylight out.

At any rate, it’s interesting to occasionally examine the systems that govern our lives, such as time zones.

The Power Of A Smile

The other day I was out doing yardwork.  I was feeling blue, frankly.  Not from the yardwork–that’s mundane, but not depressing.  Rather, I was bearing the accumulated weight of inner angst and social disappointment as I edged along the sidewalk.

Along comes a pedestrian.  I paused the weedeater to allow her to pass.  As she walked by, she unexpectedly gave me the nicest smile.  [It didn’t hurt that she was an attractive 20-something-year-old female.]

Though it might seem like a small thing, it immediately buoyed my spirits.  I was surprised what an impact the simple gesture had on my attitude, not just for a few minutes, but lasting well into the next day.

This has gotten me to think about smiling, and how I should be doing more of it.  Smile academic Marianne LaFrance offers the following reasons to smile:

smiles have multiple psychological and social effects like opening up social connections, reducing interpersonal conflict, softening embarrassing situations, enhancing first impressions, upping the likelihood of positive results both personally and professionally, to say nothing of increasing the likelihood of having a more satisfying private life, and maybe even a longer one.

So I’m striving to smile more often, and working on my smile.  It’s kind of lame to practice smiling, but I noticed that my smile looks a bit more “Botox” (feigned) than I like.  And though it’s sometimes challenging to distinguish between a fake and genuine smile, I want mine to look as Duchenne as possible. LaFrance explains the difference:

People think they can tell by looking at what the overall face looks like, but in fact there is one muscle [that shows sincerity]. It’s a muscle, called the obicularis occuli, that encircles the eye socket. Most people don’t pay very close attention to and it’s very hard to deliberately adopt. So when people genuinely smile, in a true burst of positive emotion, not only to the corners of the mouth, controlled by the zygomaticus major, but this muscle around the eye also contracts. This causes the crows feet wrinkles that fan out from the outer corners of the eyes and its also responsible for folds in the upper eyelid. Most people can’t do that deliberately.

If my anecdote isn’t convincing enough, here’s a short TED talk which highlights the benefits of smiling.

Spontaneous Thoughts

Among the many mysteries of my brain is this: Where do spontaneous thoughts come from?

A recent example.  A couple days ago I’m doing nothing in particular, letting my mind wander, when this song pops into my mind:

Through the magic of YouTube, I was able to pull the now 20+(!) year-old song and cruise memory lane.  But it begs the question: Where did this thought come from?

I consider this to be an okay song, but it has never been one of my favorites (Jesse not being my kind of female).  I haven’t heard it on the radio in ages.  Unless I subconsciously heard it on TV or YouTube, it’s been many months or years since I listened to it.  Yet there it was, playing in my musical mind.

One research paper on random thoughts posits the following:

We are aware of the output of spontaneous thoughts, but lack insight into the reasons why and processes by which they occurred. Rather than dismiss these seemingly random thoughts as meaningless, our research found that people believe, precisely because they are not controlled, that spontaneous thoughts reveal more meaningful insight into their own mind — their beliefs, attitudes and preferences — than similar, deliberate thoughts. As a consequence, spontaneous thoughts can have a more potent influence on judgment.

So there you have it.  Researchers haven’t figured out where spontaneous thoughts come from, but they must be important, because we don’t know where they come from.  They tell us something about ourselves–we just don’t know what it is.

Makes sense.