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Our Wandering Minds Teach Us a Lot About Mental Health

drawing of man with wandering mind

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

Key Takeaways

  • A recent study analyzing real-time patterns of thought focused on capturing ruminative thinking, a common symptom of depression and anxiety.
  • The findings revealed that highly ruminative individuals' thoughts were more negative, past-oriented and self-focused.
  • Spending free moments lost in thought rather than distracting ourselves with technology or social media can benefit the mind.

Where do your thoughts wander off to when you daydream? Often we think of future plans or past experiences, but for some, those thoughts frequently skew toward the negative.

Relatively little is understood about the inner workings of human consciousness and how thoughts unfold. But a better understanding of these dynamics, especially negative thought cycling, may provide insight into mental health, as well.

To further explore this relationship, a group of researchers analyzed participants' idle thoughts recorded over a 10-minute period. Their findings reveal that certain patterns in thinking could be linked to symptoms of depression.

Investigating the Inner World

Researchers conducted two studies using the think aloud paradigm, which required participants to sit alone in a testing room for ten minutes without access to technology. The main instruction from researchers was to continuously voice aloud whatever came to mind, such as internal thoughts or images, perceptions of external stimuli or bodily sensations. Participants were then asked to compare these thoughts to those they experience during a typical day.

Jessica Andrews-Hanna, PhD

After seeing what rumination looks like in action, we can now start to explore how therapies work to improve one's mental health, possibly by altering what and how we think when we have idle time on our hands.

— Jessica Andrews-Hanna, PhD

"The nature of our inner mental life is one of the most elusive mysteries in psychology, with clear relevance to personality and mental health," says the study's co-author Jessica Andrews-Hanna, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. "We designed our study to help illuminate human thought by using a 'think aloud' procedure to capture thoughts as they emerge in real-time."

This approach, as opposed to self-report questionnaires, could provide better insight into how thoughts unfold over an extended period, Andrews-Hanna says.

In the first study, 27 participants voiced their thoughts aloud, which were recorded and then analyzed. The second study consisted of the same exercise completed by 51 participants, who also completed a rumination questionnaire to determine how prone participants were to brooding.

The findings, published in Scientific Reports, revealed that participants with higher scores on the rumination scale were associated with more negative, past-oriented and self-focused thinking. These participants also spent more time focused on negative thoughts than positive ones.

The differences in these patterns of healthy and unhealthy thinking could serve as a real-time cognitive signature, or fingerprint, of rumination. This is meaningful for the future of mental health interventions, as rumination, or the process of rehashing unpleasant thoughts that cause distress, is a common symptom of depression and anxiety.

Evolution of Negative Thinking

"Our brains, for purposes of survival throughout evolution, are designed to focus on negative thoughts or events as these have the possibility of threatening us more than positive or neutral events can," Chum says.

However beneficial to survival this behavior might've been, getting stuck in a cycle of negative thinking isn't productive.

"We saw how some people became stuck in negative, past-oriented and self-focused trains of thought that became progressively narrower in topic over time," Andrews-Hanna says. "After seeing what rumination looks like in action, we can now start to explore how therapies work to improve one's mental health, possibly by altering what and how we think when we have idle time on our hands."

Shifting the Thought Cycle

As the saying goes, "An idle mind is the devil's playground...", but perhaps that's not so true—in moderation. While mental breaks were associated with ruminative thinking for many study participants, others left the study feeling refreshed and inspired, Andrews-Hanna says. Part of this could be the result of society's "stay busy" tendency. We often spend our free moments distracting ourselves, especially when our phones are within arms reach.

William Chum, LMHC

We consume so much information that mental breaks are absolutely crucial to recenter and mindfully plan our next course of action, and appropriately cope.

— William Chum, LMHC

"We often don't give ourselves the mental breaks we need to properly nourish our well-being, memory and creativity," Andrews-Hanna says. "Although there is tremendous opportunity here in making more time in our personal and work lives for idle thinking, our study also suggests the need to learn how to properly relax in order to experience the full benefits of idle time."

As the saying goes, "An idle mind is the devil's playground...", but perhaps that's not so true—in moderation. In this age of overstimulation, mental rest is necessary.

"Our earliest ancestors only had stimuli that were either immediately in front of them, or things experienced first-hand," Chum says. "Modern technology and access to news have made it so we have negative information even about things we would never experience or witness in our lifetimes. We consume so much information that mental breaks are absolutely crucial to recenter and mindfully plan our next course of action, and appropriately cope."

Psychotherapist William Chum, LMHC, isn't surprised by the study's findings, as he points out that humans are programmed with a negativity bias.

William Chum, LMHC

While we are predisposed to focus on negative thoughts and what could go wrong, it is equally as important to consciously identify what has gone well.

— William Chum, LMHC

Taking time away from our screens and social media can deliver immense mental benefits. It can be easy to forget that the time we spend scrolling and consuming external stimuli takes away from important internal exploration. After an hour of watching TikTok videos or reading tweets, we're often left feeling empty and distraught. That hour could be put to better use by using it to journal, plan an adventure or exercise our creativity.

For folks who are prone to negative thinking regardless of media consumption, small changes in behavior can promote a shift. Chum encourages his patients to find ways to practice gratitude throughout their day. As a type of coping exercise, this allows the brain to identify enough positive thoughts to counteract the negative ones.

"While we are predisposed to focus on negative thoughts and what could go wrong, it is equally as important to consciously identify what has gone well," Chum says. "The intention is not to cancel out or invalidate the negative thoughts, but to give the mind a fair vantage point of the reality, which is very rarely all bad, even though it can often feel that way." 

What This Means For You

If rumination takes up most of your mental energy, seek the help of a mental health professional that can help you process these thoughts and shift your thinking. Use this guide to find a therapist that suits you.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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