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Wednesday 10 May 2023 8:40am

Yi-Sheng Wong - image
If you find yourself with a wandering mind more often than not, you might be better at switching between tasks says PhD graduate Yi-Sheng Wong.

Yi-Sheng Wong's theory shines a new light on mind wandering, putting a positive spin on what is often considered an undesirable trait.

Mind wandering is a common everyday experience in which attention becomes disengaged from the immediate external environment and focused on internal trains of thought.

About to graduate with a PhD from Otago's Department of Psychology, Wong's research finds a strong association between cognitive flexibility and the tendency to mind wander in young adults.

Simply put, those with a tendency to mind wander perform better at switching between tasks, he says.

Wong found that while there are several hypotheses to explain why mind wandering happens, none adequately cover the role of cognitive flexibility, or mental set shifting - the ability to move back and forward between different tasks.

Alongside fellow researchers Associate Professor Liana Machado, from Otago, and Monash University Malaysia Senior Lecturer Adrian Willoughby, Wong proposes a new hypothesis that instances of mind wandering are in fact instances of mental set shifting.

“We explored this conjecture using task switching, to determine if mind wandering is linked to one's ability to move between mental states.

“We found that those with higher instances of mind wandering triggered a possible increase in cognitive flexibility, improving their task switching performance.”

There's more research to be done in this space, says Wong, but his key takeaway is that ultimately, mind wandering is neither positive nor negative.

“But I would encourage looking at mind wandering through the lens of task switching – as your mind being attuned to switching from topic to topic and task to task.”

Wong's journey to finishing his PhD was not without its challenges.

He started his PhD at a university in Malaysia and transferred to Otago after a year, after his primary supervisor moved institutions.

With only 2.5 years to complete his PhD, he changed research direction when he moved to Otago, focusing on the cultural differences in mind wandering between Aotearoa and Malaysia.

When COVID-19 came along, border closures meant it was no longer possible to travel to Malaysia to conduct experiments, he pivoted to researching the potential role of cognitive flexibility in individuals' tendency to mind wander.

For his next stint, as a Research Fellow at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore, he will be working on metacognition (thinking about one's thinking) and learning behaviours in secondary school students.

Wong is also looking forward to extending his research, collaborating with a fellow academic to explore what part of the brain mediates the relationship between mind wandering and task switching.

Associate Professor Liana Machado, Wong's PhD supervisor, says he is 'a very independent researcher', which will stand him in good stead at NTU.

“I will certainly be keeping an eye on his research discoveries.”

Wong says he will look back fondly on Otago. Two things in particular stood out for him – the depth of expertise in the Psychology department and the support for technical and administrative tasks that allowed him to focus on his research,

“[This was] especially important given I only had two and a half years to complete my PhD.”

For these reasons he recommends study at Otago.

“I've studied in Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and New Zealand. Otago is most definitely the highlight of my educational journey.”

~ Kōrero by Sandra French, Internal Communications Adviser

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