A Wandering Mind is Part of Our Evolution

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Mindfulness is such a buzzword. We all want it, but our ability to attain it is fleeting. We fear life is passing us by, and as the world moves faster and faster, living in the present moment seems more difficult. But while mindfulness is the key to happiness, mind wandering is the key to our survival as a species.

The Evolution of the Wandering Mind

According to Michael Graziano, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, we did evolve to have attention, a crucially important process in the brain that has taken millions of years to perfect. “Having your attention nailed on external sensory events happening in the moment is of great importance during fight or flight moments,” says Graziano.

But the other side of it is also important. When our mind wanders, that, too, says Graziano, is important to our survival. Most of our time is spent in-between moments of fight or flight, and humans have long used that time to digest information.

“It’s partly about remembering how to survive the saber tooth tiger, but it might also be about social interactions,” says Graziano. “There’s a lot of benefit to rumination so long as you’re not doing it the moment that a tiger is attacking you.”

Our evolution is largely about the complex social creatures that we have become. Surviving as a human was hinged on our ability to work in teams and understand social dynamics. Most of the time, when our minds wander, we’re thinking about past and future social interactions and how to conduct them. And this mechanism isn’t by chance.

“We’re thinking about how to interact better with the people we know,” says Graziano. 

The Downside of Survival

The most important thing about being human is the ability to switch between these modes, from attention to the present to that of the past and future, combining all that information to better take on the day.

Emiliano Bruner, a paleoneurobiologist at the National Research Center for Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, says that this dichotomy between the past, present and future happens in the brain’s parietal cortex. According to his August 2022 study published in the journal Intelligence, “the paleoneurological record suggests that the parietal cortex experienced a relative enlargement in Neanderthals and, most prominently, in modern humans.”

These anatomical changes led to cultural shifts resulting from our increased social capacity. Humans evolved with an outstanding “visuospatial capacity,” which allows for visual imaging along with past and future projections. “This is a wonderful superpower for evolution, enhancing evolutionary fitness, but it was a dramatic drawback for individuals (because it causes] ruminations, fears, worries and anxiety,” says Bruner. 

Read More: Deep, Slow Breathing: An Antidote to Our Age of Anxiety?

Controlling for Evolution

Today this ability to survive is also the seat of a lot of human suffering. According to Bruner, in psychology, we call this “negativity bias,” thinking negatively about the future to preempt any threats to our survival or our ability to reproduce. “In this sense, we are … intelligent but sad primates,” says Bruner. He says that we are one of the few species that cries and is suicidal, and mental projections and the anguish they cause are a lot of the reasons why. “Evolution did its job, and happiness is not among its priorities,” he says. 

(Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Bruner says that because mind wandering was important to our evolutionary survival, we humans need to control for the damage it can do to our lives in other ways. Regular meditation, for example, is a tool that has been proven repeatedly by research to increase time spent in the present moment and limit the rumination that brings mental anguish.

“To go beyond the mismatch between attention and mind-wandering, we have to train and enhance our attentional system, as to improve an evolutionary condition that is definitely mindless,” says Bruner.

Read More: How Did Humans Evolve?

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