On a scale of 0 to 100, average
happiness reported while mind
wanders to unpleasant topics
On 0 to 100 scale, average
happiness reported while
focusing on a task at hand
is unhappy mind
Even pleasant distractions
aren’t better than none at all
By Bruce Bower
A wandering mind often stumbles downhill emotionally. People spend nearly
half their waking hours thinking about
stuff other than what they’re actually
doing, and these imaginary rambles frequently feel bad, according to a new study
that surveyed volunteers’ activities and
moods at random times via their iPhones.
People’s minds wander at least 30 percent of the time during all activities
except sex, say graduate student Matthew
Killingsworth and psychologist Daniel
Gilbert, both of Harvard University.
Individuals feel considerably worse
when their minds wander to unpleasant
or neutral topics, as opposed to focusing
on current pursuits, Killingsworth and
Gilbert report in the Nov. 12 Science.
These new findings jibe with philosophical and religious teachings that
assert happiness is found by living in
the moment and learning to resist mind
wandering, Killingsworth says.
Mind wandering serves useful pur-
poses, he acknowledges, such as providing
a way to reflect on past actions or plan
for the future. “That’s not a recipe for
happiness, even if it’s necessary.”
In the new study, people’s minds
wandered more often to pleasant topics
than to unpleasant or neutral topics. But
those reveries offered no measurable
mood boost over thinking about tasks at
hand, the researchers find.
Aboriginal time flows east to west
Sun’s trajectory may define schedules for one remote group
By Bruce Bower
In a remote part of Australia, time rises
in the east and sets in the west. Aborigines living there assume that time moves
westward, apparently in accord with the
sun’s daily arc across the sky.
These hardy foragers think about the
day after tomorrow as two days to the
west, the olden days as far to the east, and
the progression of a person’s life from
infancy to old age as running to the west.
Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky
and linguist Alice Gaby of the University
of California, Berkeley report the first
study of this group’s sense of time in an
upcoming Psychological Science.
Grounding time in absolute directions
makes it imperative for these people,
called Pormpuraawans, to know which
way they’re facing at all times. For them,
time flows from left to right when facing south, from right to left when facing
north, toward the body when facing east
and away from the body when facing west.
Pormpuraawans rarely use terms for
right and left and instead refer to absolute
directions; for example, “Move your cup
to the north-northwest a little bit.”
Culture powerfully influences how
people conceive of time, in Boroditsky’s
view. “Pormpuraawans think about
time in ways that other groups cannot,
because those groups lack the necessary
spatial knowledge,” she says.
December 4, 2010 | science news | 11