By Elizabeth Ahmann, ScD, RN, ACC, Research Committee
“My son’s teachers tell me he spends too much of the time daydreaming in class.”
“I try to do the reading for my college classes, but so often my
mind just wanders.”
“I m having some trouble at work because my mind keeps wandering during meetings and I can’t participate effectively.”
As ADHD coaches, we all recognize these types of concerns. Concerns about daydreaming or mind-wandering are frequently experienced and expressed by our clients. These symptoms can interfere with ease of functioning and effective participation in a variety of daily activities. Mind-wandering can also impact satisfactory fulfillment of a variety of role responsibilities at any age.
The research study
Prior research has demonstrated a link between mind-wandering and symptoms of ADHD. In a recent article in Journal of Attention Disorders (see citation below), Franklin and colleagues (2014) examine in detail the relationship of ADHD symptoms to mind-wandering. In this study, the researchers also looked at detrimental mind-wandering as well as meta-awareness of mind-wandering.
This study included 105 adults, 71 of whom were female, with a mean age of 23.1 years.
Study subjects were recruited from fliers posted on the campus of the University of British Columbia. There were some financial incentives for participation.
This study did not include a clinically-diagnosed sample of people with ADHD, as some research does. Instead, ADHD symptoms in the participants were determined by combining the measurements on two scales of ADHD symptoms. It’s interesting that participants were not asked if they had been diagnosed with ADHD, although 14 of the 105 met the criteria for diagnosis based on one of the research scales. So, it’s important to note that we don’t know if any of the participants were actually diagnosed with ADHD.
In addition to measuring ADHD symptoms, the researchers used composite measures (composite measures means they used combinations of scores from different questionnaires) for the other key study variables: mind wandering and meta-awareness. Measures of executive functioning, inhibitory ability, attentional lapses, creativity and mood were also included in the study.
Mind-wandering was examined in a lab setting as well as during daily life.
Key study findings: Mind-wandering
It will likely not surprise coaches, or others working with individuals having ADHD, to learn that study participants reporting higher scores on the ADHD composite measure demonstrated more problems with mind-wandering. They had more mind wandering, more detrimental mind-wandering, and less strategic, or future planning-oriented, mind-wandering.
It was interesting to note that the mind-wandering observed in this study did not impact performance as measured by reading span and comprehension.
It’s also interesting to note that the 14 subjects meeting the diagnostic criteria for ADHD did not score differently than others on mind-wandering frequency in the lab or daily life but did report more unaware mind-wandering during reading.
Key study findings: Meta-awareness
Higher composite ADHD scores were also related to lower scores on meta-awareness measures. That is, participants with higher ADHD scores were less likely to be aware of mind-wandering when it occurred. This lack of awareness led to more detrimental effects.
Coaches, and our clients, will find it encouraging to learn that the study found that meta-awareness partially mediates the impact of ADHD symptoms on detrimental mind-wandering. This suggests that some of the negative consequences of mind wandering can be ameliorated by strategies improving meta-awareness.
Finally, this study suggests a positive finding about ADHD by finding that there may be a relationship between ADHD symptoms and interesting – or more creative – mind wandering, and possible a more rich internal life.
Implications for coaching
So, what does this study mean for coaches and our clients?
First, we can confirm for our clients that research shows that mind-wandering is a challenge associated with ADHD, and that increased ADHD symptoms may be associated with more mind-wandering. We can also confirm for students that research shows that reading can be impacted by unaware mind-wandering.
Second, we can help our clients recognize different types of mind-wandering, including mind-wandering that is detrimental and mind-wandering that is more useful, for example being future-planning oriented.
This study also suggests that strategies improving meta-awareness of mind-wandering may have a beneficial impact. These might include the use of interrupting alarms, mindfulness practices, self-talk and other meta-cognitive strategies.
And, of course, we can and should help our clients both identify and celebrate the benefits of mind-wandering for creative thinking and for their contribution to a rich internal life.
Franklin, et al. (2014). Tracking Distraction: The Relationship Between Mind-Wandering, Meta-Awareness, and ADHD Symptomatology. Journal of Attention Disorders (online Aug 1, 2014). DOI: 10.1177/1087054714543494
This review was written as a service to ACO members by Elizabeth Ahmann, ScD, RN, ACC, of the ACO Research Committee. You can contact the author at LizAhmann.com