Have you ever found yourself driving along the freeway, and suddenly realizing you have no idea what just happened for the last five miles? Or how about coming to the close of a textbook chapter and having no idea what you just read? Have you ever had your morning routine of zoning out in the shower abruptly broken by the biggest eureka of your life?
The concept or definition of zoning out — or similar musings generated by routine — lies in the idea that when our mind wanders, we have the ability to make connections otherwise difficult to identify. Often, these moments yield brilliant, eureka-type thoughts or ideas that are quickly forgotten or sometimes difficult to retain, probably due to the fact that we weren’t concentrated on how we arrived at the conclusion.
Where else do we have similar musings? In more-or-less enclosed spaces with few distractions created by outside stimuli, thus forcing ourselves to spend time with the only distraction left around: ourselves. In a way, this process mirrors the transfer of energy. In other words, perhaps we are more likely to have these zoning-out connections if we transfer the stimuli from the outside world into the inside world of our thoughts, and let the mind take control.
In my own writing, I often try to make connections between two seemingly disconnected concepts, one usually nature-based. I often find myself working in potentially distracting settings, primarily coffee shops. The cacophony of the environment — the espresso machine, the elevator music, the street noise coming and going as the door opens and shuts, the nearby conversations of patrons — all melds into a white noise of sorts. I often find myself staring out the windows, leaving my notes and computer untouched. To an observer, it looks as though I’ve forgone my work and have instead been caught up in daydreaming. In a way, they’re right — about the daydreaming part. But the work has not been forgone. I am simply trying to recreate the liminal state empowered by the shower.
“Liminal,” a word used to describe a physical between-world (as in the state between boyhood and manhood), can also refer to something barely perceptible as opposed to “subliminal,” which isn’t perceivable at all or below (“sub”) the perceivable threshold. In this way, “liminal” can also be used to describe a more abstract crossroads or boundary world, as in the barely perceivable zone between sleeping and waking.
Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of Santa Barbara, is a leading researcher on this type of between-world, or “mind wandering” as he calls it. He classifies mind wandering into two distinct categories: wandering while unaware of your thoughts (“zoning out”) and wandering with awareness (“tuning out”). Or, in his words, the “spontaneous generation of spontaneous thoughts [zoning out], on the one hand, and the conscious experience of these thoughts [tuning out], on the other.”
Early in his research, Schooler performed experiments involving repetitive number recognition and the reading of “War and Peace” and “Sherlock Holmes” in order to test a number of theories, including the rate of mind wandering, what could shift the rate of mind wandering, and which type of mind wandering the participants were experiencing. In order to test this latter theory, participants were asked to acknowledge every time they became aware of losing their attention. In order to test zoning out, the participants were randomly asked if they were still concentrating on task. A startling number of times, they realized they were not.
Schooler would go on from these experiments to look at mind wandering more closely, using fMRI technology to study brain activity in a 2006 study titled “Mind-wandering With and Without Awareness: An fMRI Study of Spontaneous Thought Processes.” His results showed that when participants simply tuned out, yet were still aware of their thought processes, the prefrontal cortex’s activity was highlighted. On the other hand, when participants zoned out and became unaware of their thoughts, the temporal lobe structures were activated.
Not surprisingly, the prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in decision making, consciousness, working memory, and planning, evaluating, and adapting to situations. It makes sense, then, that this section of the brain would be activated when participants were aware.
On the other hand, and perhaps more interestingly, the temporal lobe is known for processing and organizing stimuli in order for the brain to appropriately classify the information, especially comprehension and association. This area, too, helps develop long-term memory.
It is as though the brain zones out in order to understand how to store the information it is receiving. Perhaps, too, this is why our shower thoughts or zoning-out sessions aren’t really as random as we would like to believe. Rather, they are drawn from long-term memory or things that we already spend our time interacting with or thinking about.
Carl Zimmer, a current science writer who has authored twelve books, is a regular contributor to The New York Times and science magazine Discover. In a 2009 article titled “The Brain: Stop Paying Attention: Zoning Out is a Crucial Mental State,” Zimmer combines his own scientific knowledge with research from Schooler.
In regards to the 2006 fMRI study, Zimmer states that this “suggests that mind wandering is not useless mental static. Instead … mind wandering allows us to work through some important thinking. Somehow we have evolved a way to switch between handling the here and now and contemplating long-term objectives. Because a fair amount of mind wandering happens without our ever noticing, the solutions it lets us reach may come as a surprise.”
The terrifying part of this comes from the realization that we may come up with our most brilliant connections when we are unaware of what we are doing — when we are completely out of control. Or, is it simply the fact that the connection seems more brilliant because it is unexpected?