Is mind wandering a good thing or bad thing? Is it the same as being on “autopilot,” without being conscious of what you are doing? There seems to be several differing perspectives on these questions.
One of the original pieces of research on the subject of mind wandering was completed by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, is described in the journal Science. (link is external) Killingsworth and Gilbert concluded that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. In the research, entitled “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert argue: “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Unlike other animals, humans spend a lot of time thinking about what isn’t going on around them: contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or may never happen at all. Indeed, mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode of operation.
To track this behavior, Killingsworth developed an iPhone web app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.
Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television. On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of time, and no less than 30 percent of the time during every activity except making love.
“Mind-wandering appears ubiquitous across all activities,” says Killingsworth, “This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present.” Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.
“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
The researchers estimated that only 4.6 percent of a person’s happiness in a given moment was attributable to the specific activity he or she was doing, whereas a person’s mind-wandering status accounted for about 10.8 percent of his or her happiness. Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.
“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now,'” Killingsworth and Gilbert argue. “These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
Michael J. Kane and Jennifer C. McVay, writing in Current Directions in Psychological Science (link is external) argue while mind wandering might lead to creative insights, involuntary mind wandering can also take us away from the important activities and tasks at hand. In this article, Kane and McVay discuss the relationships among working memory, task-unrelated thoughts, and task performance. Using both laboratory-based and daily-life assessments, their research has shown that people with lower working memory capacity are more likely to mind wander, at least during demanding tasks. This propensity to mind wandering may partly explain why people with lower working memory capacity are also more likely to make errors. Kane and McVay argue that involuntary mind wandering can provide psychological scientists with a unique window into aspects of the mind’s mechanisms for cognitive control, including how, when, and for whom these mechanisms fail.
Researchers Daniel B. Levinson, Jonathan Smallwood, and Richard J. Davidson asked the question our working memory acts as a sort of mental workspace that allows us to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously, but what role does it play in mind wandering? Does working memory inhibit or support off-task thinking? Their research was published in Psychological Science. (link is external)They decided to put this question to the test.
The researchers asked volunteers to perform one of two simple tasks — either pressing a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or simply tapping in time with one’s breath — and compared people’s propensity to drift off.
“We intentionally use tasks that will never use all of their attention,” Smallwood explains, “and then we ask, how do people use their idle resources?”
Throughout the tasks, the researchers checked in periodically with the participants to ask if their minds were on task or wandering. At the end, they measured each participant’s working memory capacity, scored by their ability to remember a series of letters given to them interspersed with easy math questions.
In both tasks, there was a clear correlation. “People with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these simple tasks,” says Levinson, though their performance on the test was not compromised.
The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.”What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” Smallwood says.
Interestingly, when people were given a comparably simple task but filled with sensory distractors (such as lots of other similarly shaped letters), the link between working memory and mind wandering disappeared.
Working memory capacity has previously been correlated with general measures of intelligence, such as reading comprehension and IQ score. The current study underscores how important it is in everyday situations and offers a window into the ubiquitous — but not well-understood — realm of internally driven thoughts.
“Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life — when they’re on the bus, when they’re cycling to work, when they’re in the shower — are probably supported by working memory,” says Smallwood. “Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems.”
In essence, working memory can help you stay focused, but if your mind starts to wander those resources get misdirected and you can lose track of your goal. Many people have had the experience of arriving at home with no recollection of the actual trip to get there, or of suddenly realizing that they’ve turned several pages in a book without comprehending any of the words. “It’s almost like your attention was so absorbed in the mind wandering that there wasn’t any left over to remember your goal to read,” Levinson says.
Where your mind wanders may be an indication of underlying priorities being held in your working memory, whether conscious or not, Levinson says. But it doesn’t mean that people with high working memory capacity are doomed to a straying mind. The bottom line is that working memory is a resource and it’s all about how you use it, he says:”If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too.”
People whose minds wander whilst driving, especially when intense, are significantly more likely to be responsible for a crash and are threatening safety on the roads, warns a study by C. Galera and colleagues published in the British Medical Journal (link is external)
All drivers experience occasional drifting of their minds towards internal thoughts, a temporary “zoning out” that might dangerously distract them from the road. External distractions (such as from mobile phones) are known to be linked with crashes, but inattention arising from internal distractions (such as worries) is still poorly understood in the context of road safety.
A team of researchers from France therefore wanted to see if mind wandering would increase the risk of being responsible for a crash.
They interviewed 955 drivers injured in a motor vehicle crash attending the emergency department at Bordeaux University Hospital between April 2010 and August 2011. All participants were 18 years or older.
Patients were asked to describe their thought content just before the crash. Researchers also assessed how disruptive/distracting the thought was. Mitigating factors considered to reduce driver responsibility, such as road environment, traffic conditions, traffic rule obedience and difficulty of the driving task were also taken into account.
Finally, blood alcohol level was tested as well as the driver’s emotional state just before the crash.They classified 453 (47%) drivers as responsible for the crash and 502 (53%) as not responsible. Over half (52%) reported some mind wandering just before the crash, and its content was highly disrupting / distracting (defined as intense mind wandering) in 121 (13%).
Intense mind wandering was associated with greater responsibility for a crash — 17% (78 of 453 crashes in which the driver was thought to be responsible) compared with 9% (43 of 502 crashes in which the driver was not thought to be responsible). This association remained after adjusting for other confounding factors that could have affected the results.
The authors conclude that the association between intense mind wandering and crashing “could stem from a risky decoupling of attention from online perception, making the driver prone to overlook hazards and to make more errors during driving.”
More recent research seems suggests that there are different kinds of mind-wandering, some of which are actually beneficial.
According to a new study published in the (link is external)Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (link is external), a wandering mind can impart a distinct cognitive advantage.
Scientists at Bar-Ilan University are the first to demonstrate how an external stimulus of low-level electricity can literally change the way we think, producing a measurable up-tick in the rate at which daydreams — or spontaneous, self-directed thoughts and associations — occur. Along the way, they made another surprising discovery: that while daydreams offer a welcome “mental escape” from boring tasks, they also have a positive, simultaneous effect on task performance.
The new study was carried out in Bar-Ilan’s Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory supervised by Prof. Moshe Bar, part of the University’s Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center which Professor Bar also directs.
While a far cry from the diabolical manipulation of dream content envisioned in “Inception” — the science-fiction thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio — the Bar-Ilan University study is the first to prove that a generic external stimulus, unrelated to sensory perception, triggers a specific type of cognitive activity.
In the experiment — designed and executed by Bar’s post-doctoral researcher Dr. Vadim Axelrod — participants were treated with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a non-invasive and painless procedure that uses low-level electricity to stimulate specific brain regions. During treatment, the participants were asked to track and respond to numerals flashed on a computer screen. They were also periodically asked to respond to an on-screen “thought probe” in which they reported — on a scale of one to four — the extent to which they were experiencing spontaneous thoughts unrelated to the numeric task they had been given.
Bar — a long-time faculty member at Harvard Medical School who has authored several studies exploring the link between associative thinking, memory and predictive ability — the specific brain area targeted for stimulation in this study was anything but random.
“We focused tDCS stimulation on the frontal lobes because this brain region has been previously implicated in mind wandering, and also because is a central locus of the executive control network that allows us to organize and plan for the future,” Bar explains, adding that he suspected that there might be a connection between the two.
As a point of comparison and in separate experiments, the researchers used tDCS to stimulate the occipital cortex — the visual processing center in the back of the brain. They also conducted control studies where no tDCS was used. While the self-reported incidence of mind wandering was unchanged in the case of occipital and sham stimulation, it rose considerably when this stimulation was applied to the frontal lobes. “Our results go beyond what was achieved in earlier, fMRI-based studies,” Bar states. “They demonstrate that the frontal lobes play a causal role in the production of mind wandering behavior.”
In an unanticipated finding, the present study demonstrated how the increased mind wandering behavior produced by external stimulation not only does not harm subjects’ ability to succeed at an appointed task, it actually helps. Bar believes that this surprising result might stem from the convergence, within a single brain region, of both the “thought controlling” mechanisms of executive function and the “thought freeing” activity of spontaneous, self-directed daydreams.
“Over the last 15 or 20 years, scientists have shown that — unlike the localized neural activity associated with specific tasks — mind wandering involves the activation of a gigantic default network involving many parts of the brain,” Bar says, “this cross-brain involvement may be involved in behavioral outcomes such as creativity and mood, and may also contribute to the ability to stay successfully on-task while the mind goes off on its merry mental way.”
While it is commonly assumed that people have a finite cognitive capacity for paying attention, Bar says that the present study suggests that the truth may be more complicated. “Interestingly, while our study’s external stimulation increased the incidence of mind wandering, rather than reducing the subjects’ ability to complete the task, it caused task performance to become slightly improved. The external stimulation actually enhanced the subjects’ cognitive capacity.”
Bar says that, in the future, he would be interested in studying how external stimulation might affect other cognitive behaviors, such as the ability to focus or perform multiple tasks in parallel. And while any therapeutic application of this technique is speculative at best, he believes that it might someday help neuroscientists understand the behavior of people suffering from low or abnormal neural activity.
Benjamin Baird, Jonathan Smallwood, Michael D. Mrazek, Julia W. Y. Kam, Michael S. Franklin, and Jonathan W. Schooler published research in Psychological Science (link is external) to test the theories of mind wandering.
They designed an experiment in which they asked participants to perform an Unusual Use Task (UUT), listing as many unusual uses for an item as possible. The participants were then split into four groups — one group was asked to perform a demanding task and a second was asked to perform an undemanding task. The third group rested for 12 minutes and a fourth group was given no break. All participants then performed the Unusual Use Task again. Of the four groups, only the people who performed the undemanding task improved their score on the second UUT test. Participants in the undemanding task reported greater instances of mind wandering during the task, which suggests that simple tasks that allow the mind to wander may increase creative problem solving.
So it seems like there are two different perspectives on mind-wandering and its negative or positive effects. How this research intersects with the growing field of mindfulness as a way of managing mind wandering from an “autopiolot” perspective should prove to be most interesting.