As random access memory (RAM) decides to a great extent the way a computer will perform, working memory of an individual helps him or her in accomplishing the daily goals in both private and professional life. Since the part of the brain is responsible for working memory also helps enhance focus and concentration levels, a good working memory assists a person in memorizing everything that he or she needs to remember. But when the mind starts to wander, one loses direction and faces challenges in staying on a task until its completion.

Scientists from the University of British Columbia (UBC) recently reviewed the results of a mind-wandering research published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience to find a new framework for understanding mental disorders. The study uses the concept of the wandering mind and the “stream of consciousness” for understanding mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Role of free, constrained thoughts in triggering mental illness

Many a time, the mind tends to wander and notices other things while trying to focus on a particular task. It has been observed that people spend most of their waking hours thinking about something that has no connection with what they are doing, which makes them unhappy. According to Kalina Christoff, lead author of the study and a professor at UBC's department of psychology, “Sometimes the mind moves freely from one idea to another, but at other times it keeps coming back to the same idea, drawn by some worry or emotion “Understanding what makes thought free and what makes it constrained is crucial because it can help us understand how thoughts move in the minds of those diagnosed with mental illness.”

Similarly, the spontaneous movement of thoughts can be curtailed by both automatic and deliberate constraints. Whether it is creativity or dreaming, both are spontaneous activities. As per the study, dreaming is associated with very low or no deliberate constraints and medium to low automatic constraints. In creative thinking, however, the thought process constantly shifts between the liberal and automatic constraints. For example, while writing a story or a poem, the deliberate sentence ensures that the writer sticks to the rules of grammar and writing.

Mind wandering can be a cause of unhappiness

According to Zachary Irving, one of the co-authors of the study and a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, the framework of mind wandering could be of immune help to psychologists since it could help them gain insights into the nature of mental illnesses. As per the researchers, mental disorders like ADHD, depression and anxiety are seen as an extension of the “normal variation of thinking.”

The study also revealed that the mind is an amalgamation of ADHD mind, which enables a person to think creatively, and the anxious mind, which helps a person to concentrate on things that are personally important to him or her.

In a 2010 research , published in the journal Science, the researchers found that most people spend 46.9 percent of their waking time thinking about something other than what they are currently engaged in, and that this mind wandering is a major source of unhappiness.

Mental disorders are treatable

With the increased acceptance of mental illness as a disorder that needs immediate attention and care, a large number of people are now becoming proactive towards the issue. However, there remains a need to increase awareness about mental disorders and their treatments. One can use time-tested methods such as mindfulness therapy and talk therapy to control his or her wandering mind that is often a root cause of several mental ailments.