Wandering minds want to know

By John Pastor • Published: February 22nd, 2013
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

If you’ve ever wanted to research something on the Web, but wound up scrolling through stories about the Royal Family instead, you know that a mind distracted can lead you to places you never intended to go.

Not that cerebral strolls to no place in particular are phenomena of the cyber age. Most of us have shared the experience of momentarily forgetting why we were rummaging through drawers or closets.

Minds wander. Luckily, they know how to find their way home. But sometimes, particularly in older adults, getting lost in thought has a more literal meaning.

In a study delving deep into our genetic structure, researchers with the University of California at San Francisco tried to understand what goes on in the actual DNA of midlife people who are thoroughly focused in the moment, versus those folks whose minds have a tendency to wander.

They looked at telomeres (telo-mirrors), the caps of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that keep them from getting tangled with neighboring chromosomes. To understand this, think of how a knot at the end of a rope keeps it from unraveling. As we get older, these caps get smaller.

In a study of 239 healthy women aged 50 to 65, the volunteers who reported the most mind wandering had shorter telomeres, while those who rated themselves as more engaged in the moment had longer telomeres. This suggests that the shape of our chromosomes may be an indicator of our mental health.

It’s unknown whether a fuzzy mind leads to shorter telomeres, or whether shorter telomeres cause minds to wander. Or, it could be some outside factor is at work fraying our DNA and fogging our focus.

The answer will be interesting. It is something wandering minds certainly will want to know, even if they happen to be become absorbed in a story about the Duchess of Cambridge along the way.