Why Does Zoning Out Make My Brain Feel All Good and Fuzzy?No thoughts, just vibes.
We’ve all done it—you’re driving home on the same route you’ve probably taken a thousand times. Suddenly you’re at an intersection getting ready to make a turn but have no memory of the last five blocks. Or, maybe even more relatable, you’re online shopping, scrolling through endless thumbnails of beige coats. Then BAM, it’s a few minutes later and you’re suddenly on page 20 of 45 on Abercrombie. If either of these situations sounds familiar, you’ve experienced the very common phenomenon of zoning out.
Put simply, “zoning out is when you lose focus on the task at hand,” says clinical psychologist Rebecca Semel, PhD. If you're listening to something, suddenly you’ve stopped hearing and processing the words because you’re staring into space. Or sometimes you might even be doing something but you have no clear, conscious memory of the little details. Essentially, your brain is taking a timeout here.
Though social media often dubs this mental hiatus as dissociation, most experts say that zoning out is typically a more accurate way to describe what’s going on here. Dissociation refers to a feeling of being detached from reality, feeling outside of your body, or losing long periods of time (sometimes hours), says Dr. Semel. Zoning out is a much milder version of that.
But either way, uh, why does it happen? Here’s a crash course in zoning out, including why it feels so good, when it can become a problem, and how to work on staying present when it’s becoming an issue.
Why do we zone out?
The biggest reason we space out is because of our limited attention threshold. We can only force our brains to pay attention to something for so long before they get sleepy. Of course, this varies from person to person and from one circumstance to another.
Perhaps the most obvious zoning-out trap is doing something boring, like sitting through a lecture or knocking out some mindless busy work. In those cases, your brain wanders off to focus on the vacation you wish you were on, that rug you want for your bedroom, or whatever the mental equivalent is to a 404 page. Actually, in a 1989 study participants read nonfiction passages that varied in how interesting they were. The less interesting the reads, the more people thought about other things, according to the study.
Maybe it’s not that surprising, but zoning out while doing a boring thing could also be more common in people with ADHD, according to a 1993 study. Dr. Semel calls it a “hallmark symptom” of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, especially inattentive ADHD.
Doing something you’ve done a billion times, like commuting home from work, can make it easy for your brain to log off too. As can doing a non-life threatening task that feels too hard (like your taxes, maybe). In that case, your brain kinda enters avoidance mode, Dr. Semel says. It’s almost like your mind is saying, “‘Let me just turn off and do something different for a few minutes,’” she adds. After that little brain vacation, it might feel easier to refocus on your work, Dr. Semel adds. The more you know.
Finally, when you unconsciously think there’s something more important to focus on (like the genius Letterboxd review you need to post), you deprioritize whatever held your attention before—even if that task wasn’t boring, routine, or uber-challenging, explains neurologist Andrew Budson, MD, author of Why We Forget and How to Remember Better: The Science Behind Memory. Yep, could be as simple as that.
What’s going on when we’re zoned out?
When you’re locked into a task, a part of your noggin called the anterior cingulate is active, explains Dr. Budson. In non-scientist terms, this area is responsible for focus, decision-making, anticipation of tasks, and impulse control—all things we need when taking in and responding to new information.
When we're zoning out, [the anterior cingulate] shuts off and then “the default mode network” turns on, Dr. Budson says. That network is largely found in the temporal lobes—including the hippocampus, which retrieves old information. (JFYI: The hippocampus can also encode new information, but that’s not what happens when you go into default mode.) So say you’re driving home and don’t remember passing through most of your route by the time you get in your driveway. That’s because your hippocampus retrieved the directions programmed into it after driving this way countless times without your conscious awareness.
Why does zoning out feel so good sometimes?
When you zone out, you can get a light, kinda warm and fuzzy feeling. And if the reality you’re coming back to is particularly boring (like a painfully mundane work task or a monotone teacher harping about parallelograms), you might want to zone right back out of there. Research on zoning out is fairly limited, so the root cause of that cozy feeling is hard to say for sure.
There’s no known chemical release that happens in your brain when zoning out that would be responsible for making you feel good, Dr. Budson says. But he notes it would presumably stem from the fact your brain gets to relax a bit. “Daydreaming is not goal-directed; your brain can take a break and think about whatever it wants to,” he says. Basically, it’s quiet quitting by taking some me time.
Dr. Semel agrees and suggests that desirable feeling could be attributed to how you’re likely thinking about things that are more positive or interesting than whatever the task at hand may be—even if that’s nothing at all.
How can I stop zoning out?
Both Dr. Semel and Dr. Budson agree that when zoning out starts to impact your day-to-day functioning and quality of life, it’s time to take action. That could look like constantly missing out on your boss’ instructions or your eyes glazing over during conversations with friends.
Dr. Budson recommends tapping into meditation and mindfulness to help train your awareness and, in turn, help you pay more attention when you need to. By practicing for 10-20 minutes each day (or as often as you can), Dr. Budson explains, you’re training yourself to focus.
One of the easiest ways to practice mindfulness is to take some time to focus on your breath and how it feels in your body. Notice the sounds of your inhale and exhale, pay attention to how it feels going in and out of your nose, focus on how your abdomen expands and contracts, notice the pause between breaths, Dr. Budson says. “If your mind wanders, just nudge it back to focusing on your breath in a non-judgmental way,” he says.
You could also practice mindfulness by doing a body scan. Close your eyes and direct your focus to the top of your head, working your way down to your feet, pausing to notice how each part of your body feels. As you do it, notice any sensations, like tingling, pain, pressure, tension, or discomfort. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. The goal is just staying present and learning to refocus your attention.
While that’s great for the long-term, clocking regular breaks can also help you stay focused, Dr. Semel suggests. If you can plant them into your schedule, great. If not, just get up and take a lap or switch tasks for a few minutes. Reading an article or looking up flights might be the rest your brain needs. “This encourages your brain to attend to the new material and may help you to refocus when you return to your previous task,” Dr. Semel says.
If you’re in school, the ultimate zone-out zone, coming up with a question that you want answered during each class can help keep you engaged. Self-talk can also be really helpful. “Reminding yourself that you just have to get through this task, or ‘there are only X minutes left of this’ can help cue yourself to refocus and attend for a little bit longer,” Dr. Semel adds.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.