New insights into how anxiety and curiosity affect mind wandering tendencies

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New research has found that curious individuals tend to be more prone to both intentional and unintentional mind wandering. On the other hand, anxious individuals tend to have poorer executive control. Individuals with poorer executive control, in turn, tend to be less able to suppress tendencies of the mind to wander, leading to higher unintentional mind wandering tendencies. The study was published in Personality and Individual Differences.

Mind wandering, also known as daydreaming, refers to the phenomenon in which a person’s attention shifts away from their immediate task or external environment and becomes focused on unrelated thoughts, memories, or fantasies. It often occurs involuntarily and can include a wide range of mental experiences, from planning for the future to reminiscing about the past.

Mind wandering is a common and normal aspect of human cognition, but excessive or uncontrolled mind wandering can sometimes be distracting and affect productivity. It has attracted a lot of research attention in the past decades and researchers proposed various psychological mechanisms in an attempt to explain it. The tendency to daydream has been linked to anxiety and depression, but also to creative thinking. Studies have shown that executive control capacities of an individual also play a role in this phenomenon.

The author of the study, Takahiro Sekiguchi of Tokyo Gakugei University, aimed to investigate the influence of curiosity and anxiety on mind wandering. His focus was primarily on epistemic curiosity, which is the desire to gain new knowledge and insights about the world, motivated by a genuine interest in learning and discovery. Epistemic curiosity can manifest in two forms: diversive curiosity, which entails an interest in a broad spectrum of subjects and topics, and specific curiosity, which is more concentrated on particular areas of interest. To explore these aspects, Sekiguchi conducted two separate studies.

Participants of the first study were 260 psychology students recruited from the Tokyo Gakugei University in Japan. They completed assessments of epistemic curiosity (the Epistemic Curiosity Scale), mind wandering tendency (the Mind Wandering questionnaire), trait anxiety (the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory), and executive control (the Effortful Control Scale for Adults). Executive control refers to cognitive processes responsible for managing and regulating higher-order functions like planning, decision-making, attention, problem-solving, and self-control. It enables individuals to adapt to changing circumstances and achieve their goals.

The second study was an online survey. Participants were 328 native Japanese speakers recruited through a crowdsourcing service CrowdWorks. Their average age was 30 years. These individuals completed assessments of epistemic curiosity, trait anxiety, and executive control using the same assessments as in the first study.

The findings from the first study revealed no significant correlation between either form of curiosity and the propensity for mind wandering. Nonetheless, it was observed that individuals with higher anxiety levels were more susceptible to mind wandering and exhibited weaker executive control capabilities.

Sekiguchi developed and tested a statistical model suggesting that the relationship between anxiety and mind wandering is mediated by executive control. This model posits that increased anxiety results in diminished executive control, which in turn leads to a greater likelihood of mind wandering. The study’s results supported this model, indicating that the connection between trait anxiety and mind wandering is not direct but occurs through the impact of anxiety on executive control.

The second study revealed only a faint link between diversive curiosity and unintentional mind wandering. On average, individuals with a broad range of interests were marginally more inclined to experience mind wandering than those with more focused interests.

When examining the interplay of these factors through a statistical model, it was suggested that diversive curiosity, as opposed to specific curiosity, could potentially increase the likelihood of both intentional and unintentional mind wandering. Additionally, the study reaffirmed that anxiety impairs executive control, which subsequently increases the propensity for unintentional mind wandering.

The study author concluded, “This research demonstrates that trait anxiety is indirectly linked to the tendency for mind wandering through executive control. In contrast, epistemic curiosity, a more positive and socially valuable personality trait, has a direct influence on the propensity for mind wandering. These insights suggest that mind wandering is a phenomenon rooted in socially desirable qualities, lending a positive aspect to this construct.”

The study sheds light on the psychological mechanisms underpinning mind wandering. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study design does not allow any cause-and-effect conclusions to be drawn from the data. Additionally, the link between diversive curiosity and unintentional mind wandering is very weak.

The study, “Curiosity makes your mind wander: Effects of epistemic curiosity and trait anxiety on mind wandering”, was authored by Takahiro Sekiguchi.

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