When Your Mind Wanders

You’re sitting on your desk, busy away at work and lean back a bit to distance yourself from the chaotic workload that is in front of you.

Staring up at the ceiling or out into the window view, you zone out as your mind wanders far off into a distance space of the past and/or future.

Or perhaps you are sitting in your car, on auto-pilot mode, driving through the streets, letting your daydream into places far off.

Whatever and wherever you’re doing it, this transient state is what is known as mind-wandering, and its something we all engage in. In fact, data indicates that most of our minds, wander 47% of the time.

What is mind wandering

Also known as stimulus-independent thought, mind-wandering is when your brain drifts off into an ephemeral space, where you run through the memories of the past or simply imagine the ways of a potential future.

Some suggest that mind-wandering is when we specifically are thinking of task-unrelated and stimulus-independent thoughts. Researchers McMillan, Kaufmann and Singer (2013) have noted that mind-wandering itself can be broken down into three types:

  • positive constructive daydreaming
  • guilty fear of failure
  • poor attentional control

Mistakes made from mind-wandering

Some argue that mind-wandering is bad for us, as we dwell over the regrets, losses, and negatives of what has passed. In addition, there are studies that note that we may be more prone to mistakes when we let our mind wander as well.

In one experiment, scientists looked to measure something called the feedback error-related negativity (ERP). An ERP gave the researchers some idea of how closely the participants were monitoring the accuracy of responses performing a task. When looking at brain scans, they found that ERP dropped when participants were mind-wandering, suggesting that the act itself negatively affects our ability to monitor our performance, adjust our behavior, and thus, make mistakes.

Why does the mind wander?

With mind-wandering being such a common trait, yet being something that negatively affects us, why do we do it?

One hypothesis to the function of mind-wandering is believed to be for cognitive control. This is the process in which our brains try to regulate adaptive behavior. Kurzban et al. (2013) proposed that cognitive control goes through a set of mental computations that hypothesize the experience of effort in a given task. It determines the value of that task and other nearby tasks, and does a cost-benefit analysis that weighs the overall effort required for the rewards received.

This at large, could potentially be our brain’s way of our minds from doing things we don’t want to do. Our minds, after all, are limited in attentional resources. It helps us mentally unplug from having to constantly be ‘on,’ and thus saves us from burning out all our efforts into things it identifies as having lesser value.

In letting your mind wander, it potentially frees up attentional resources and also the structured way of thinking that limits creative outputs.

— Julia Kam, Cognitive Neuroscientst at University of Calgary

Why mind wandering isn’t all that bad

Despite arguments that mind wandering can be bad for your brain, on the flipside there is other research that indicates that there are some advantages to it, especially if deliberately done.

  • Divergent, creative thinking — This refers to the notion of letting our minds free-flow into thinking of new ideas and solutions. With this type of thinking, some studies have shown that people who let their minds wander were able to feel a boost in creativity. During any mind-wandering process, we engage in the default network of our brain, which research indicates is closely linked to creativity itself.
  • Elevated mood — Although there has been plenty of research pointing to the fact that negative moods were a result of mind wandering, its also just one side of the story. In fact, the type of mood people were in depends on the type of content they are letting their minds wander off into. And even more so, the mood in which a person is in can largely influence what type of mind wandering you actually do. For example, if you are feeling down and dwelling on what-if’s of the past, then the. thoughts you engage in may be inherently negative, further perpetuating that mood.

This study suggests that mind-wandering is not something that is inherently bad for our happiness.. Sadness is likely to lead the mind to wander and that mind-wandering is likely to be [emotionally] negative.”

  • Improve focus, and reduce stress — Mind wandering can be a form of taking mental breaks. There have been countless research that shows us that micro-breaks have a positive relationship with productivity and performance. In fact, tiny breaks are so impactful on the well-being of our brain, they’ve been shown to improve concentration, shift perspectives, and reduce stress. With all of this being said, its no wonder that mind wandering itself — if done correctly — can improve work performance, as long as we do it in moderation.

A lot of us spend a lot of time trying to optimize the objective reality of our lives. But we don’t spend a lot of time and effort trying to optimize where our minds go.”

— Matt Killingsworth, OhD, Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar