The Benefits of Wandering Attention

Human BrainAre you concerned when you see your child or teen daydreaming? According to Daniel Goleman, author of many books including his latest one, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, periodically letting your mind drift is actually good for you. It allows for creativity and rest that the brain doesn’t otherwise engage in. I recently read Focus and was struck by the importance of occasional attention wandering which Goleman refers to as “open awareness”.

Usually, in our busy days, our brains spend most of the time purposefully assembling, managing and applying information. We engage in actions, behaviors and self-expression that require complex mental and physical processes. Attention is focused on a variety of situations, people and problems.  This focus comes from interactions between the different parts of the brain.

The lower brain works mostly out of our consciousness, checking sensory information and events in our environment. The mid-brain monitors and processes emotions. The frontal lobes (the prefrontal cortex) are often called ‘the thinking brain’. They manage executive functioning skills like planning, organizing, self-reflection and impulse control that push away distractions and point the mind to a single task or thought. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to finish developing (around age 25) and is specifically affected by having ADHD. Of course, attention is also affected by cultural norms, technology and trauma.

Sad boy doing homeworkWe are bombarded by information every moment of every day. The constant stimulation creates what Goleman refers to as the ‘neural buzz” in our brains. This ‘buzz’ can easily interrupt us and overwhelm our capacity to manage our focus. People with ADHD/ADD are especially susceptible to these interruptions and benefit from the balance that occasional ‘zoning out’ provides. In fact, some scientists believe that daydreams might actually be time when innovative connections between new ideas are occurring.

So, what does this mean for you and your child? Simply put, allow for some down time—time when the brain can free associate and take a break from the demands of technology, relationships, academics and performance. Try this:

1. Create technology-free time on a daily or weekly basis, depending on your child’s needs. Let your child use this time for whatever else he or she wants to do, including and especially nothing. Set limits for this time in advance.

2. Make a list of various activities for this time with your child or teen so you can avoid an argument when it arrives.

3. Participate with your child in this time, also refraining from technological interruptions. This way your child will take it seriously.

Remember this is time for personal and family balance from the busy work the brain does all day long. Take a deep breath and enjoy the wandering!