What is mind wandering?
A review by McMillan and colleagues (2013) sums up a large body of research on mind wandering. Mind wandering has been called various names over the past 60 years such as daydreaming, thought intrusions, task irrelevant thoughts, spontaneous thought, internally generated thoughts, self-generated thought, zoning out, offline thought, unconscious thought and undirected thought etc.
Mind wandering occurs when our attention drifts away from external tasks and perceptual input toward more private and internal streams of thoughts and images.
Singer and colleagues have suggested mind wandering to be a normal, widespread and adaptive human phenomenon that occupies our consciousness many hours a day. There are estimates that suggest we invest as much as 50% of our waking hours in mind wandering.
Singer have differentiated between three styles of daydreaming or mind wandering (McMillan et al., 2013):
- Positive constructive daydreaming: characterized by playful, wishful imagery, and planful, creative thought.
- Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming: characterized by obsessive, anguished fantasies.
- Poor attentional control: characterized by the inability to concentrate on either the ongoing thought or the external task.
Mind wandering has been associated with decoupling of attention from perceptual input. Mind wandering therefore decreases as task demands or performance increases. Mind wandering may consist of two processes (1) perceptual decoupling, and (2) meta-awareness, i.e. the ability to note one’s thoughts.
Although we decouple our attention from perceptual input, some attentional functions may still be maintained during mind wandering because studies have found that we still detect unexpected changes in the environment when we are in a mind wandering state of mind.
Much research has conceived mind wandering as a cognitive control failure because it has negative effects on reading comprehension, mood, memory, sustained attention, academic performance, IQ and task-related processing. Our attention is of limited capacity, and since mind wandering decouples attention, we lack attentional resources to solve tasks such as the above-mentioned ones.
In the light of these findings, mind wandering can be seen as a cognitive “failure” because it decreases performance on a number of tasks. However, mind wandering may serve many beneficial functions as well:
“Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event” (p. 5).
“Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school” (p. 5).
Four positive aspects of mind wandering
1. Positive constructive daydreaming
Mind wandering (daydreaming), imagination and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. Daydreaming can reinforce and enhance social skills, offer relief from boredom, provide opportunities for rehearsal and constructive planning, and provide an ongoing source of pleasure.
In a recent review, Schooler et al. (2011, as cited in McMillan et al., 2013) suggest that positive constructive daydreaming serves four broad adaptive functions:
- Future planning: characterized by an increased period of self-reflection and attenuated by an unhappy mood.
- Creativity: characterized by creative incubation and problem solving.
- Attentional cycling: Allows individuals to rotate through different information streams to advance personally meaningful and external goals.
- Dishabituation: enhances learning by providing short break from external tasks, thereby achieving distributed rather than massed practice.
2. Adaptive value
Spontaneous thought has been associated with better memory consolidation. Furthermore, engaging in simple activities that permit daydreaming has been associated with creative incubation and problem solving.
A strong link has been found between self-reflection, autobiographical memory, and future-oriented off task thought. These three cognitive processes are important when we simulate future events, and daydreaming may therefore allow us to plan and rehearse possible future scenarios.
Self-generated thought may also contribute to the successful management of long term goals. One study has found that positive constructive daydreaming tends to be future-oriented. The study concludes that spontaneous future-oriented thoughts are adaptive because they advance personally relevant goals.
Others have suggested that constructive internal self-reflection serves a wide range of socio-emotional skills such as understanding the implications of emotional responses, and deriving meaning from events and experiences. These socio-emotional skills are a consequence of mind wandering (i.e., self-reflection) that enables people to make meaning from their experiences and relationships.
3. Volitional daydreaming
Mind wandering can be volitional because individuals can choose to disengage from external tasks (i.e., decouple attention) in order to pursue an internal stream of thought that they expect to pay off in some way. However, it can also occur without our permission or awareness.
The payoff may be immediate in the form of pleasing daydreams or insights, or it may be more distant as in rehearsing upcoming scenarios, or visualizing oneself in a desired situation. It can also be used to interpret past experiences in the light of new information. In this way, mind wandering may offer an opportunity for personally rewarding thoughts.
4. Personal rewards
Here is a list of personally rewarding thoughts that may originate from mind wandering:
“Self-awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion” (p. 5).