Ah, yes, the wandering mind.
Mind-wandering has gotten bad press. The wandering mind is said to be an unhappy mind, perhaps even setting us on a path to early death. This view is encouraged by the popularity of mindfulness, and other meditative techniques, designed to focus our thoughts so intently that the mind is tethered into near immobility.
Mind-wandering often seems to afflict us when we’re supposed to be concentrating on something, such as a lecture, a board meeting, or driving. It also gets in the way when we’re simply trying to read a book. Jonathan Schooler and colleagues at the University of California at Santa Barbara had students read the opening chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace for 45 minutes and asked them to press a key whenever they caught themselves “zoning out.” They caught themselves an average of 5.4 times. The students were also interrupted six times at random intervals to see if they were zoning out at the time without having been aware of it, and this caught, on average, a further 1.2 times. So it’s not just you, you might be relieved to know — we all seem to have trouble staying focused, especially on the books we’re actually supposed to be reading. Or the lecturer we’re supposed to be listening to.