Ancient philosophies and belief systems of Buddhism and Taoism have long understood a state of consciousness of mind wandering, however referring to it as the “monkey mind.” This term is quite appropriate as it defines a state of one’s thoughts jumping from one thought to the next, as a monkey can jump from one tree to the next. William James, the founder of psychology in the United States coined the term “the stream of consciousness.” He saw our thoughts similar to a film reel, where we have individual thoughts that linked together in a sequence to form somewhat of a moving story or movie in our minds. The story moves or “streams” as we are constantly moving from one thought to the next as we process external and internal stimuli. William James theorized that human consciousness does not occur in bits or fragmented segments but rather flows more like a river, or a stream of consciousness. (Benjamin, 2018).
Our inner dialogue consist of basically two separate modes of awake thought processing and associated cognitive brain functions. The first mode of the brain is called the default mode network (DMN), the turbid mind, the incessant inner dialogue, or the monkey mind. In this mode we occupy 50-80 percent of our time with this wandering attention, juggling about 150 undone tasks at any particular time. When we perform mundane tasks, such as getting dressed, taking a shower, brushing our teeth, driving to work, or maybe jogging around the block, our mind is often wandering elsewhere. Our brain is not really focusing much on the physical task at hand but rather thinking of other issues or events elsewhere. We sometimes refer to this as multitasking. Our mind is constantly wandering in and out of the past, present, and future. Becoming and staying focused on specific tasks is a large challenge for the human brain.
The second mode of the awake brain is the task positive network (TPN) or focused mode (Dal Lin et al., 2015). Focused mode is engaged when we are actively paying attention, in the present moment, or concentrating upon tasks using short-term memory, as the brain processes information deemed as very important, interesting, or even sometimes dangerous. For example, if you are engaged in an interesting movie, you may not notice time passing by because your thoughts are focused on what is happening in the movie. If one’s life was to be threatened by a venomous snake, they might become extremely focused upon not moving too quickly, while also keeping their focus on the movement of that snake. Playing a musical instrument, riding a bike, taking a test, or using a knife while cooking are other examples of using this first mode of the brain – focused mode. We often enjoying being in this mode, in spite of not spending the majority of our time here. However, too much time in focus mode left unchecked, can often lead to stress and relative psychological and physiological disorders.
So, how can we better manage and deliberately engage the mode of our choosing? The first step is understanding that we are exposed to various types of stimuli at any given movement. Stimuli comes to us in differing amounts through either external or internal sources. Stimuli is received through our primary sense organs of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue and touch receptors throughout skin on the entire body. Internal stimuli is received through baroreceptors as well as pain, temperature and other types of receptors that tell us when we are hungry, thirsty, and off balance. Often this input manifests into various emotions, whether deemed as positive or negative in their nature.
Psychologist George Miller proposed his theory in his 1956 paper entitled The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information, that the human brain’s short-term or working memory (STM) has an upper limit referred to as the “magical number seven.” Miller’s paper detailed his theoretical description of how STM brain might be capable of managing 7 objects, or bits of information. However, the upper limit could be as many as 9 or as little as 5. Miller’s article reported that memory span is not limited by small bits of information, but rather limited by that of a few bits of information grouped together, or “chunks” (p. 349). Cowan (2015) wrote a review of Miller’s (1956) article titled George Miller’s Magical Number of Immediate Memory in Retrospect: Observations on the Faltering Progression of Science. Years after Miller’s paper, Cowan and Baddeley conducted their own studies on human memory and information processing, where both surmised that the real magic number is actually four and not seven. This concept of the limits of STM affect everyday tasks and interactions, ranging from reading menus on a website, driving a vehicle, and even holding a conversation with one another.
If we can deliberately choose to occupy our thoughts with stimuli that engages our short-term memory along with our breath and physical body alignments and sometimes movement, we can actually learn to better manage our thoughts and emotions. The physical body is a conduit into understanding our mind. The mind is tasked with directing and protecting the body. Conversely, the body protects the user’s mind. Yoga and its sibling of qigong, and its offspring of tai chi, offer many options of sitting, standing and moving exercises that can help to move the practitioner into a meditative state of mind that can help to tame our incessant inner dialogue. Other methods that can engage this cognitive process of managing thoughts can be playing instruments, gardening, and other skillful means however, not all offer the same benefits such as the physical health benefits of yoga, qigong and tai chi.
Benjamin, T., Jr. (2018). A Brief History of Modern Psychology. Wiley.
Cowan, N. (2015). George Miller’s magical number of immediate memory in retrospect: Observations on the faltering progression of science. Psychological Review, 122(3), 536–541. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039035
Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63(2), 81–97. https://doi-org.northernvermont.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/h0043158
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