Why Zoning Out is Important


We are taught from a young age that to focus is good. Our parents say it, school teachers and coaches all say that to us. We all associate focus with responsibility and achievement. That conscious and effortful thought is the only good way to think, everything else, like zoning out, is just mental static.

But, what if science has proven that zoning out is actually beneficial? How would that shift our views on thinking?

Studies by Jonathan Schooler of UC Santa Barbara and Alan Gordon of Stanford University have shown that people usually zone for about 43% of the time and that zoning out is not necessarily associated with boredom. But, what really happens is that the human mind has evolved to switch between thinking about immediate and long term objectives. This is seen when people zone out during simple or repetitive tasks. Because in these situations, there is less need for focus and attention and the mind seamlessly drifts off. During these moments of drifting the brain activates its executive control system and default network. These systems allow people to solve big picture problems or long term objectives.

Scientists believe this type of thinking has led to certain intellectual breakthroughs. One example is when theoretical physicist, Henri Pioncare, came to an aha moment on a mathematical proof while stepping onto a bus. At the time, he wasn’t making an effort to think, he was just zoning out. A more famous example is when Archimedes was asked if a crown was made from pure gold. After much thought and frustration, Archimedes had still not come to an answer. However, as he calmly drifted off during a bath he noticed that the volume of his body submerged in water equaled to the volume of water displaced. He had an aha moment and realized he could use water to measure the crown’s volume and find the crown’s mass to see if it had the same density of pure god. Archimedes was so excited by the flash of insight that he ran home naked yelling “Eureka!”

We would generally associate mental breakthroughs like these to a person’s effort or brilliance and less to the mental process of zoning out. This is not to say that intellect and effort are unimportant, but we should also realize that zoning out is an important mental process. The benefits of zoning out happen largely without us even noticing it. And the faults of zoning out are plainly obvious: we forget things, we don’t pay attention, or we make simple mistakes. Things like these reinforce our view that zoning out should be shunned from our minds if we want to solve the problems in our lives. However, constant focus is impossible and even if we could do that, it would hinder our ability to see the big picture, and constant zoning out would make us inattentive and prone to mistakes. What we are coming to learn is that we must have a balance in the way we think, and that even seemingly useless thoughts like zoning out, play an important role in our lives.