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When our mind strays from a present activity, our movements become slower and more erratic

Published: 06th February 2023 Last updated: 06th February 2023

When our minds wander during performance of a task, our fine motor movements become slower, less direct and more complex. The deeper our minds wander, the more erratic our fine movements become, indicating greater detachment from the present environment. Our brains process stimuli from the external environment more weakly and brain activity becomes more similar to brain waves that are present during sleep. These are the results of research done by Mariana Dias da Silva-van Riel who will receive her doctorate on February 8.

 These findings are relevant for building applications that can alert us when our minds wander too much while we try to stay focused on a task. 

During many moments during the day, our attention detaches from the world around us and instead focuses on our thoughts and feelings. Dias da Silva investigated the effects of mind wandering with experiments in both the laboratory and in the classroom. Participants performed a task in which they  had to both memorize a stream of letters and perform mathematical operations. One method for mapping students’ mental states was computer mouse tracking. When individuals were not focused on the performing the task, they moved the mouse back and forth aimlessly more often and their movements slowed down. They also made more mistakes in the task.

Dias da Silva also examined what happens when people are engaged in a monotonous routine task and their minds wander. Individuals whose thoughts wandered more frequently in daily life now reported less varied thought content during the task, suggesting that they were more likely to be absorbed in a single line of thought. She also measured brain activity and found that oscillations typically associated with sleep were also more active during mind wandering.


Applications of her research could include developing a tool that, for example, while driving, alerts us when our minds wander.  Or during an online lecture, an app would be able to monitor student’s online behavior, and nudge them whenever their thoughts stray away. This could have a positive impact on learning.

For more information
Mariana Dias da Silva-van Riel at 4:30 p.m. in the auditorium with live stream. Title dissertation: Grounded or in flight? What our bodies can tell us about the whereabouts of our thoughts? Please contact science editor Tineke Bennema, tel. 013 4668998 or via e-mail: