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Substantial evidence suggests that mind-wandering typically occurs at a significant cost to performance. Mind-wandering-related deficits in performance have been observed in many contexts, most notably reading, tests of sustained attention, and tests of aptitude. Mind-wandering has been shown to negatively impact reading comprehension and model building, impair the ability to withhold automatized responses, and disrupt performance on tests of working memory and intelligence. These empirically identified costs of mind-wandering have led to the suggestion that mind-wandering may represent a pure failure of cognitive control and thus pose little benefit. However, emerging evidence suggests that the role of mind-wandering is not entirely pernicious. Recent studies have shown that mind-wandering may play a crucial role in both autobiographical planning and creative problem solving, thus providing at least two possible adaptive functions of the phenomenon. This article reviews these observed costs and possible functions of mind-wandering and identifies important avenues of future inquiry. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved).
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The Costs and Benefits of Mind-Wandering: A Review
Benjamin W. Mooneyham and Jonathan W. Schooler
The University of California, Santa Barbara
Substantial evidence suggests that mind-wandering typically occurs at a significant cost to performance.
Mind-wandering–related deficits in performance have been observed in many contexts, most notably
reading, tests of sustained attention, and tests of aptitude. Mind-wandering has been shown to negatively
impact reading comprehension and model building, impair the ability to withhold automatized responses,
and disrupt performance on tests of working memory and intelligence. These empirically identified costs
of mind-wandering have led to the suggestion that mind-wandering may represent a pure failure of
cognitive control and thus pose little benefit. However, emerging evidence suggests that the role of
mind-wandering is not entirely pernicious. Recent studies have shown that mind-wandering may play a
crucial role in both autobiographical planning and creative problem solving, thus providing at least two
possible adaptive functions of the phenomenon. This article reviews these observed costs and possible
functions of mind-wandering and identifies important avenues of future inquiry.
Keywords: mind-wandering, reading, attention, creativity, autobiographical planning, mindfulness
Mind-wandering is one of the most ubiquitous of all mental
activities. Estimates suggest that the tendency for the mind to stray
from the here and now in favor of thoughts unrelated to current
external events constitutes as much as 50% of our waking hours
(Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010; Klinger, 1999). Notably, these
incessant mental meanderings come at quite a cost, significantly
disrupting performance on a great range of activities ranging from
the banal (e.g., simple vigilance tasks; Allan Cheyne et al., 2009;
McVay & Kane, 2009; Smallwood et al., 2004) to the most
demanding (performance on the SAT; Mrazek et al., 2012). This is
because most of our activities occur in interaction with the external
environment, and mind-wandering is characterized specifically by
a decoupling of attention from an immediate task context toward
unrelated concerns (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006; Schooler et al.,
2011). But what are these detriments and how have they been
measured empirically? One aim of this article will be to review the
costs that are associated with mind-wandering by examining the
effects of mind-wandering as they have been measured with regard
to both performance and mood. The negative impact of mind-
wandering has been observed primarily within several main types
of performance: reading, sustained attention, and working memory
and intelligence testing. Thus, we will examine mind-wandering’s
effects within each of these settings. Additionally, performance
measures alone do not encapsulate the negative aspects of mind-
wandering, and as such we will also examine the relationship
between mind-wandering and mood (Killingsworth & Gilbert,
2011; McVay, Kane, & Kwapil, 2009).
Because it is intuitively and empirically clear that mind-
wandering occurs at some cost (McVay, Kane, & Kwapil, 2009;
Reichle, Reineberg, & Schooler, 2010; Allan Cheyne et al., 2009;
Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler, 2008; Smallwood et al.,
2008; Smallwood et al., 2004), this has led to the notion that
mind-wandering may be principally described as a failure of
cognitive control (McVay & Kane, 2010). Although this may be
true to some extent, the prevalence of this phenomenon in our daily
lives suggests that it may not be solely erroneous to mind-wander,
that mind-wandering may have some benefit for our species
(Schooler et al., 2011; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). We will
therefore also review research that has pointed toward the possible
utility of mind-wandering, focusing on its role in future thinking/
planning and creativity.
Costs of Mind-Wandering
Perhaps the situation in which the disruptive effects of mind-
wandering have been most thoroughly explored is that of reading
(Schooler, Reichle, & Halpern, 2004; Smallwood, McSpadden, &
Schooler, 2008; Reichle, Reineberg, & Schooler, 2010; Smilek,
Carriere, & Cheyne, 2010; Franklin, Smallwood, & Schooler,
2011; Smallwood, 2011). In typical examinations of the effect of
mind-wandering on reading, participants are given text to read and
are periodically probed with questions regarding whether at that
moment their thoughts are on or off task. These studies have
routinely found that mind-wandering frequency is correlated with
Please refer to Table 1 for a comprehensive list of studies that have
directly demonstrated that mind-wandering is associated with detriments in
performance, attention, mood, etc.
Benjamin W. Mooneyham and Jonathan W. Schooler, Department of
Psychological & Brain Sciences, The University of California, Santa
Dr. Jonathan W. Schooler’s research is supported by the John Templeton
Foundation under grant No. 24329 and through the Office of Education
grant R305H030235. Benjamin W. Mooneyham is supported by a National
Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under grant No. DGE-
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Benjamin W.
Mooneyham, Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, University of Cal-
ifornia, Santa Barbara, CA 93106. E-mail:
Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology / Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale © 2013 Canadian Psychological Association
2013, Vol. 67, No. 1, 11–18 1196-1961/13/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0031569
reading comprehension performance (Schooler, Reichle, &
Halpern, 2004; Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler, 2008), such
that participants who are caught mind-wandering more during
reading tend to perform worse on subsequent comprehension tests.
This comprehension deficit has been shown to occur for informa-
tion that is presented immediately preceding reports of mind-
wandering, demonstrating the online effect of diverting attention
away from a reading task, but perhaps more significantly it has
also been manifested as an overall deficit in model building. For
example, in a study examining whether participants could quickly
and accurately detect when a text had switched to gibberish, errors
at gibberish detection were associated with probe-caught mind-
wandering episodes, suggesting that mind-wandering is related to
failures in building propositional models of the text, thus impairing
participants’ ability to detect meaning-related violations within the
text at the sentence level (Schooler, Smallwood, McSpadden, &
Reichle, 2007, as cited in Smallwood, Fishman, & Schooler,
2007). Such model formation errors have also been observed when
information is presented over more prolonged intervals. In an
investigation of the effects of mind-wandering on situational
model building, Smallwood, McSpadden, and Schooler, (2008)
had participants read a Sherlock Holmes story (The Red-Headed
League by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). In this study, mind-
wandering was associated with failures in generating the correct
situational model (as indexed by participants’ ability to correctly
identify the villain in the story) over and above the negative impact
of mind-wandering on text-based information retrieval. These
findings indicate that participants who mind-wander more during a
reading task tend to incur more inference-dependent model-
updating failures.
The robust relationship between mind-wandering frequency and
reading comprehension has been well-documented (Schooler,
Reichle, & Halpern, 2004; Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler,
2008) and is augmented by other demonstrations that mind-
wandering while reading is also associated with superficial per-
ceptual encoding (Smilek, Carriere, & Cheyne, 2010; Franklin et
al., 2012 [under review]) and less modulated motor/verbal output
(Franklin, Smallwood, & Schooler, 2011; Reichle, Reineberg, &
Schooler, 2010; Franklin et al., 2012 (under review)). For example,
it has been shown that the typical strong relationship between
words’ lexical properties and the amount of time that participants
take to process them (Rayner, 1998) is attenuated during periods of
mind-wandering. Reichle, Reineberg, and Schooler (2010) had
participants read Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and mea-
sured eye movements during reading; they showed that while gaze
durations were sensitive to lexical features such as word length and
frequency when participants were on-task, this sensitivity dimin-
ished in periods preceding off-task reports. A similar effect has
been found for RTs in word-by-word reading paradigms (where
participants press a key to advance the text to the next word), and
Franklin et al. (2011) used this effect (i.e., the reduced coupling
between RTs and lexical properties) to accurately predict reports
of mind-wandering during a reading session, and furthermore,
found that predicted mind-wandering rates in an unprobed condi-
tion correlated strongly with actual comprehension rates.
Interestingly, mind-wandering can have a costly influence on
more reading-related behavior than just simple RTs. In a recent
study in which participants were recorded reading a passage aloud
and probed regarding their mind-wandering, Franklin et al. (2012;
under review) found subtle but detectable differences in the vocal
prosody of participants’ vocal output when comparing on-task and
off-task reading. Specifically, participants exhibited higher volume
speech with less volumetric variability while mind-wandering
compared with while on-task.
In sum, it is clear that mind-wandering comes at a cost when
reading. It leads to item-specific comprehension deficits as well as
model-building deficits (Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler,
2008). In addition, mind-wandering is associated with a reduced
coupling between motor (and ocular) responses and their lexical
determinants. Unfortunately, this disengagement from the external
environment that has been observed in reading tasks appears to
occur in many other performance settings, with important impli-
Table 1
A Chronological List of Articles Suggesting Costs of
Study Type of observed deficit
Teasdale et al. (1995) Random number generation
Smallwood, Baracaia, Lowe, &
Obonsawin (2003) Memory
Schooler, Reichle, & Halpern (2004) Reading Comprehension
Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler
(2007) Response inhibition
Smallwood, O’Connor, Sudbery, &
Obonsawin (2007) Memory, Mood
Riby, Smallwood, & Gunn (2008) Memory
Smallwood, Beach, Schooler, &
Handy (2008) External processing
Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler
(2008) Reading comprehension
McVay & Kane (2009) Sustained attention
McVay, Kane, & Kwapil (2009) Self-reported performance (daily
life activities)
Smallwood et al. (2009) Mood
Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010) Mood
Reichle, Reineberg, & Schooler
Reading comprehension, Eye
Barron, Riby, Greer, & Smallwood
(2011) Task-relevant processing
Franklin, Smallwood, & Schooler
(2011) Reading comprehension
He, Becic, Lee, & McCarley (2011) Driving
Hu, He, & Xu (2012) Sustained attention
Kam et al. (2011) External processing
Mrazek et al. (2011) Sustained attention, GRE (math)
Smallwood & O’Connor (2011) Mood
Smallwood et al. (2011) Task-relevant/external
Stawarczyk et al. (2011) Sustained attention
Uzzaman & Joordens (2011) Reading comprehension, Eye
McVay & Kane (2012a) Reading comprehension
McVay & Kane (2012b) Sustained attention
Mrazek et al. (2012a) Working memory, gF
Mrazek et al. (2012b) Working memory, GRE (verbal
Risko et al. (2012) Memory
Schad, Nuthmann, & Engbert (2012) Reading comprehension,
Sustained attention
Unsworth & McMillan (2012) Reading comprehension
Tests of Cognitive Ability
The Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART). The
Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART; Robertson, Manly,
Andrade, Baddeley, & Yiend, 1997) is a commonly used behav-
ioral index of mind-wandering. The SART is a GO/NOGO task in
which stimuli are presented in sequential fashion and participants
are tasked with responding as quickly as possible (via key press) to
frequent nontarget stimuli and refraining from responding to rare
target stimuli. The effects of mind-wandering during performance
of the SART can be observed by examining any one of four
performance measures: SART errors (failures to omit a response to
a target), reaction time (RT) variability (i.e., RT CV), SART
omissions (failure to respond to a nontarget), and SART anticipa-
tions (automatic, rapid responses to nontargets that occur too
quickly to be indicative of focused task performance). Each of
these measures is correlated with one another, and most impor-
tantly, with self-reported measures of mind-wandering (Allan
Cheyne et al., 2009), such that mind-wandering rates are typically
positively correlated with SART errors, RT variability, omissions,
and anticipations. This effect of mind-wandering within this test of
sustained attention is robust and consistent to such an extent that
SART-related performance measures are now frequently used as
indirect markers of mind-wandering episodes, with SART errors
viewed as representing a more pronounced form of task disengage-
ment, whereas another indicator, increased RT CV, is viewed as
representing a minimally disruptive form of disengagement (Allan
Cheyne et al., 2009; Smallwood et al., 2004; Mrazek, Smallwood,
& Schooler, 2012). As such, it is clear that mind-wandering can
result in errors of sustained attention, such as failing to notice an
infrequent target or engaging in automatic processing instead of
focused attentive processing.
Working memory. Although all researchers agree that mind-
wandering is associated with measures of working memory, there
is some contention regarding the implication of this relationship.
Some authors have argued that working memory processes are
involved in the mental activity of mind-wandering itself (and
specifically, with the maintenance of a sustained train of mind-
wandering thought; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006); whereas others
have argued that working memory is more closely related to the
control processes engaged in getting the mind back on track and
that mind-wandering does not draw from these executive control
resources (McVay & Kane, 2010). Although it is not in the scope
of this article to address or resolve this contention, we do encour-
age the interested reader to compare these two perspectives (cf.
Smallwood & Schooler, 2006; McVay & Kane, 2010). Whereas
the role that working memory plays in mind-wandering may be of
some dispute, the reverse and (until recently) largely overlooked
question is more straightforward. If we ask what role mind-
wandering plays in the measurement of working memory, the
answer unambiguously turns out to be a very substantial one.
Mrazek et al. (2012) administered automated versions of three
common tests of working memory capacity (the operation span
task [OSPAN], the reading span task [RSPAN], and the symmetry
span task [SSPAN]) with embedded thought sampling probes to
participants and found that probe-caught self-reported mind-
wandering scores were (significantly) negatively correlated with
scores on each of the WMC tests. Moreover, there was a signifi-
cant effect of mind-wandering on WMC performance on a trial-
by-trial basis (using the OSPAN; Mrazek et al., 2012, Study 2)
even for the “easiest” set sizes within the working memory task,
suggesting that mind-wandering did not merely arise as a result of
poor performance (such a hypothesis predicts that if individuals
struggle to remain engaged due to the difficulty of the task, then
mind-wandering should only predict performance on the more
difficult portions of the task) and providing further evidence that
mind-wandering disrupts performance in tests of working mem-
This result helps to explain why WMC has been successfully
used to predict mind-wandering in other contexts (e.g., McVay,
Kane, & Kwapil, 2009), because mind-wandering during tests of
WMC exerts a consistent effect on the WMC estimates them-
General intelligence (gF). Although the aforementioned
WMC results may muddy the waters of the debate about the role
of working memory in mind-wandering, they clearly reveal that
mind-wandering hampers performance on measures of working
memory. This suggests that mind-wandering may have similarly
pernicious effects on performance within tests that typically cor-
relate with tests of working memory capacity, such as those that
claim to measure general intelligence or aptitude. Consistent with
this hypothesis, Mrazek et al. (2012) observed that mind-
wandering rates during a test of general intelligence (Raven’s
Progressive Matrices) predicted performance on that test. Further-
more, and more troubling still, mind-wandering on this intelli-
gence test also predicted individuals’ performance on the SAT, a
test which was taken on average 1–3 years beforehand. As such,
these results provide clear evidence that mind-wandering is dele-
terious when it occurs in the contexts of working memory and/or
aptitude measurement. Considering the heavy emphasis that higher
learning institutions place on general aptitude measures such as the
SAT for college acceptance and scholarships, we face the possi-
bility that mind-wandering may be a strong determinant of aca-
demic success or failure.
If mind-wandering is such a malignant factor in important
measures of cognitive performance, then why do we do it? Per-
haps, like many things that are not good for us, we mind-wander
because we enjoy doing so. However, although it may be the case
that under some situations mind-wandering may serve as a positive
alternative to the tedium of a task, when considered across the
many circumstances in which it occurs, it cannot be said that
mind-wandering is generally an enjoyable activity. In fact, evi-
dence suggests that individuals are generally less happy when they
are mind-wandering than when they are not (Killingsworth &
Gilbert, 2010). In a study examining thought contents during
real-world mind-wandering episodes, Killingsworth and Gilbert
(2010) administered random probes to individuals as they went
This trial-by-trial analysis is of particular importance, given the cor-
relational nature of much of the research that has examined costs in
performance attributable to mind-wandering. Correlational analyses allow
for equal footing to be shared by explanations positing either that mind-
wandering leads to poor performance or that poor performance leads to
greater mind-wandering, but trial-wise analyses (such as the one per-
formed by Mrazek et al., 2012) help to clarify the directionality of this
relationship; future research in this field will benefit from using similar
analytic approaches.
about their daily lives (through a web-based cell phone applica-
tion) and found that people tended to report being less happy when
their minds were wandering than when they were not. This effect
prevailed across all activities, including even the least enjoyable.
Furthermore, even though people were more likely to mind-
wander about pleasant topics than unpleasant or neutral topics,
there was no difference in happiness ratings between current
activity-related thoughts and positive mind-wanderings. Mind-
wandering also explained more than twice as much within- and
between-person variance in happiness ratings as did the actual
nature of people’s activities at the time of questioning. Lastly,
time-lag analyses suggested that mind-wandering was an anteced-
ent of negative mood and not the other way around (such analyses
strengthen the ability to make causal claims about the relationship
between mind-wandering and mood, despite the general correla-
tional nature of the results). Although (as will be discussed) there
may well be situations where mind-wandering experiences relieve
tedium, Killingworth and Gilbert’s findings clearly demonstrate
that mind-wandering does not typically provide affective relief,
and indeed imposes significant costs to mood as well as perfor-
Benefits of Mind-Wandering
Given the striking costs of mind-wandering, it is hard to imagine
that we would engage in such a disruptive activity so often without
it having some functionality. While the costs of mind-wandering
that have so far been documented in experimental settings (e.g.,
reading comprehension deficits) may not be of the kind that would
have presented roadblocks to reproductive success from an evolu-
tionary standpoint (and which therefore could have allowed a
tendency for mind-wandering to have evolved despite a lack of
functionality), it is clear that mind-wandering takes place in non-
experimental settings and that the costs of mind-wandering in
these other contexts can be far more damaging (such as when one
fails to stop their vehicle at a stoplight). As such, it is likely that we
glean some benefit from our bouts of mind-wandering. In fact, this
notion was expressed early on in the mind-wandering literature
(and yet has received very little attention until only recently). In
their pioneering work examining daydream characteristics, Singer
and Antrobus (1963) suggest a “clearly problem-solving, objec-
tive, nonpersonal type” of daydreaming which stands in contrast to
“the more fantastic, emotional, variegated, anxious, and pleasant”
factors that often drive mind-wandering episodes. This “controlled
thinking” daydreaming factor identified by Singer and Antrobus,
although only one of many, have convey important benefits to us,
and surely warrants scientific examination. Another point that is
worth making here is that mind-wandering may be distinguishable
into separate types or forms, and that while some types of mind-
wandering may be disruptive, others may provide some benefit.
Despite this fact, investigations into the benefits of mind-
wandering are rare, but not nonexistent: although far less research
has been dedicated to the potential upside of mind-wandering,
recent research has suggested a functionality of mind-wandering
within two very important activities: future thinking and creative
thinking. We will now review these findings and address possible
alternative functional roles for mind-wandering.
Future Thinking
A large proportion of the thoughts that occur during mind-
wandering episodes are prospective in nature (D’Argembeau,
Renaud, & Van der Linden, 2011; Smallwood, Nind, & O’Connor,
2009), especially in cases where task demands permit substantial
attentional resources to be directed toward the mind-wandering
train of thought (Smallwood, Nind, & Connor, 2009; Baird,
Smallwood, & Schooler, 2011). The future-directed orientation of
mind-wandering, combined with the fact that spontaneous
thoughts are often closely coupled with individuals’ current con-
cerns (Klinger, 1999; McVay & Kane, 2010; Smallwood et al.,
2004), suggests one possible function of mind-wandering: the
anticipation and planning of personally relevant future goals, oth-
erwise known as autobiographical planning.
Mind-wandering clearly produces concurrent deficits in task
performance, but this cost could possibly be remunerated, at least
in part, by the benefits gained through prospective planning and
simulation. For although mind-wandering can and does occur in a
damaging fashion for many types of tasks, it also occurs most
prevalently during tasks that impose lesser attentional and working
memory demands (Teasdale et al., 1993; McVay & Kane, 2010).
This suggests that while we may not be entirely able to choose
when and where to let our minds wander, we may be most prone
to mind-wandering in situations in which concurrent performance
is less important and in which we can more afford the cost to reap
the benefits of autobiographical planning. In a recent study, Baird,
Smallwood, and Schooler (2011) took advantage of the prevalence
of mind-wandering episodes during a relatively low-resource–
demanding task (a Choice Reaction Time Task; Smallwood et al.,
2009) and examined the temporal focus and cognitive orientation
(i.e., self-related or goal-directed) of participants’ thoughts during
the task. Several findings from this study suggest that mind-
wandering may function to help individuals plan for the future.
First, the temporal focus of participants’ thoughts was predomi-
nately future-focused when they reported being off-task compared
with on-task, demonstrating that people do indeed tend to prospect
while mind-wandering. Second, self-related thought was more
Please refer to Table 2 for a (brief) list of studies that have indicated a
possible functional role for mind-wandering.
Different “types” of mind-wandering may load differentially onto
different “Big Five” personality factors. For instance, Zhiyan & Singer
(1997) determined that the “positive-constructive” type of daydreaming
correlated positively with the NEO-FFI factor of “Openness,” whereas the
“guilty-dysphoric” type of daydreaming correlated with both “Neuroti-
cism” and “Negative Emotionality.” This further supports the idea that
some types of mind-wandering may be more useful than others.
Table 2
A Chronological List of Articles That Suggest Functional
Study Posited function
Baars (2010) “Global broadcasting” of
conscious thoughts
Baird, Smallwood, & Schooler (2011) Autobiographical planning
Kaufman & Singer (2011) Goal-directed thought
Smallwood et al. (2011) Prospection, Self-reflection
Stawarczyk et al. (2011) Future planning
Baird et al. (2012) Creative incubation
frequently future-focused than present- or past-focused, indicating
that these future-focused cognitions tended to be personally rele-
vant. Third, thoughts that involved a combination of both self-
related and goal-directed content were more frequently future-
focused than present- or past-focused. Finally, those individuals
with higher working memory scores were more likely to mind-
wander about the future than about the past or present. Together,
these results imply that the prospective nature of mind-wandering
may be functional: prospective mind-wandering enables planning
for and thinking about future goals, and people take advantage of
this opportunity when they have the working memory resources to
do so.
Creative Thinking
Anecdotes of creative insights occurring during periods of list-
less thought pervade the annals of the sciences. From Archimedes
sitting in a bath to Poincare stepping on a bus, legends of ideas
popping to mind while individuals were seemingly otherwise
occupied are numerous, albeit not scientifically documented. An-
other common feature of these anecdotes is that solutions are only
arrived at after having previously attempted to solve the problem
to no avail; in modern terms this means that these problems were
subjected to incubation, the effects of which have now been
examined empirically. In a recent meta-analysis of incubation
effects, Sio and Ormerod (2009) found that across studies incuba-
tion intervals tended to be most effective if they were filled with an
undemanding task relative to either no task at all or a demanding
task. Interestingly, undemanding tasks also happen to be those that
maximize the occurrence of mind-wandering (Smallwood &
Schooler, 2006). By pairing these pieces of information together,
we can thus hypothesize that mind-wandering may play a role in
successful incubation (i.e., in coming up with novel solutions to
previously presented problems when presented with them after the
incubation period).
Baird et al. (2012; in press) sought to examine this hypothesis by
determining whether performance on validated creativity problems
(the Unusual Uses Task [UUT]) was facilitated differentially by
engaging in either a demanding task, an undemanding task (that
maximized mind-wandering), a rest period, or no break between
creativity problems. They discovered that relative to the demand-
ing task, rest, and no break conditions, engaging in an undemand-
ing task (a Choice Reaction Time Task) during an incubation
period led to significant increases in creative solutions to the target
problems. This undemanding task condition was likewise the con-
dition with the highest incidence of mind-wandering, but critically,
this condition did not produce a higher incidence of explicit
thoughts about the creativity problems themselves. As such, it is
evident that the conditions that maximize mind-wandering can also
be the most conducive to creative problem solving. It is worth
noting, however, that this undemanding task condition did not
produce additional benefits for new problems (problems presented
for the first time after the incubation period), indicating that
mind-wandering may not lead to a general increase in creativity
(although it should also be noted that performance on both the
repeated and the new creativity problems was positively correlated
with individuals’ general propensity to mind-wander as measured
by the Imaginal Process Inventory; Singer & Antrobus, 1972). In
sum, although mind-wandering may or not be conducive to general
creativity, it does appear to be beneficial for conjuring new solu-
tions to old problems.
Other Possible Functions of Mind-Wandering
Having now provided multiple lines of evidence that suggests an
inherent functionality in mind-wandering, we will briefly discuss
three additional possible adaptive functions of mind-wandering.
When considering alternative functions of mind-wandering, one
useful approach is to consider the following: what is it about the
nature of our typical activities that makes mind-wandering bene-
ficial? Contemplating this question leads us to propose the follow-
ing potential functions of mind-wandering: attentional cycling,
dishabituation, and relief from boredom.
Attentional cycling. It is adaptive for an individual with mul-
tiple goal states to be able to cycle through different streams of
information (e.g., current sensory environment, prospective plan-
ning information, remembered experiences, etc.). Mind-wandering
may provide us with the opportunity to frequently switch between
streams of thought, thus enabling us to maintain goal-appropriate
behaviors for multiple goals at a time.
Dishabituation. Learning may be enhanced with distributed
practice relative to massed practice (Underwood & Ekstrand,
1967). The advantage of distributed practice may stem from the
benefits in processing that are afforded by dishabituation, and as
such, it is possible that mind-wandering during learning tasks in
particular may allow for (albeit brief) periods of dishabituation
from the task, thus providing the mind with an opportunity to
return to the task with a refreshed capacity for attentive processing.
One way in which this could feasibly be tested would be to use a
version of the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) in
which the nontargets share a particular category membership and
the targets (perhaps indicated by some perceptual feature such as
capitalization) are either members of that category or not. By
requiring individuals to indicate whether or not the target is a
member of the nontarget category, RT could be used as a measure
of “semantic satiation” (e.g., Balota & Black, 1997), such that
longer RTs would be indicative of semantic satiation. If mind-
wandering enables dishabituation, then one would predict that
mind-wandering would reduce semantic satiation effects (by “re-
freshing” the mental state), and this could be tested by examining
RTs differences (for category-congruent targets) between trials in
which participants are either mind-wandering or not prior to the
presentation of the target (which can be indirectly indexed in
SART tasks by measures such as RT CV). We recognize that in
many cases mind-wandering undermines performance, but an ex-
periment such as this could potentially provide evidence that
mind-wandering can improve performance beyond the level that
occurs when individuals are fully on-task.
Relief from boredom. When faced with a boring task or
situation, our minds tend to wander, sometimes intentionally. This
may be adaptive; the ability of our minds to disengage from the
current external environment and to engage in an alternative train
of thought may have evolved in part to allow us to overcome
tedium and disinterest without overtly abandoning a necessary
task. Preliminary evidence in support of this relationship comes
from a recent study by Baird et al. (2010), in which participants
were given a very tedious task to work on for 45 minutes. Com-
parison of the difference between pre- and posttask assessments of
mood revealed that people were less happy overall after partici-
pation in the task, presumably because they found it so boring.
However, the magnitude of this drop in mood was reduced the
more people mind-wandered. In short, mind-wandering appeared
to partially insulate people against the mood costs of engaging in
a particularly tedious task.
Mind-wandering may also reduce tedium by helping the time to
pass. While boring tasks are typically estimated to last longer than
they actually do, mind-wandering episodes have been observed to
be accompanied by temporal estimations that are shorter than their
on-task counterparts (Mooneyham et al., 2012; unpublished re-
sults). As such, mind-wandering may act to “speed up” the per-
ceived flow of time during tedious or boring activities.
Summary and Conclusions
It is a striking fact that mind-wandering is simultaneously so
ubiquitous and so problematic. Mind-wandering does not simply
reflect a penchant for the mind to stay busy when not otherwise
occupied; on the contrary, even when individuals are engaged in
highly demanding tasks such as reading or taking an important test,
the mind still exhibits its peculiar tendency to wander off. Al-
though we have documented a host of contexts in which mind-
wandering has proven problematic, it seems likely that, given what
we know, mind-wandering can disrupt performance on any task
that demands executive resources. Given its ubiquity, we can only
imagine what price we actually pay for out habitual tendency to
think about things unrelated to what we are doing. From mundane
events such as missing important elements of conversations to
more serious consequences such as traffic accidents, medical mal-
practice, and military mishaps, mind-wandering in all likelihood
plays a significant and insidious role.
The undeniable cost of mind-wandering raises two related ques-
tions, one that we have already commented on at some length, and
the other that we have left until now. The first question is as
follows: Why, if it is so costly, do we mind-wander so often? We
have speculated that there may be a host of possible functions of
mind-wandering that may help in part to mitigate its costs. These
include but are likely not limited to: planning for the future,
enabling creative incubation, allowing dishabituation, and reliev-
ing tedium. Although promising lines of research have been initi-
ated to explore some of these possible functions, to date, the
majority of mind-wandering studies have specifically examined its
frequency and costs and have not addressed its functionality;
moreover, those studies that have addressed the possible functions
of mind-wandering have not provided strong causal evidence to
the extent that it has been provided in documenting the costs of
mind-wandering. For instance, although mind-wandering has been
demonstrated to favor autobiographical thoughts and future-
oriented planning, mind-wandering has not been shown to actually
improve individuals’ ability to prepare for future events. Clearly,
understanding the functionality of mind-wandering is a timely
issue greatly deserving of more research attention. As such, addi-
tional studies will be required to provide stronger evidence for real
(and not just potential) benefits of mind-wandering.
The second question on which we close this discussion is as
follows: Are there any things that individuals can do to help reduce
the costs of mind-wandering? Fortunately, a recent study suggests
that an age-old remedy may still be one of the best strategies for
reducing inopportune drifts of attention. Mrazek et al. (2012; in
press) compared the effects of two different 2-week interventions
on mind-wandering and performance among college students: a
mindfulness meditation class and a nutrition class. Strikingly,
participation in the mindfulness meditation class reduced mind-
wandering during both a GRE reading comprehension test and a
working memory test and improved performance on both of these
measures. Moreover, for individuals with a penchant for mind-
wandering, the improvement in performance was found to be
mediated by the reduction in mind-wandering. This study suggests
that mindfulness may well be the antidote to mind-wandering.
However, it raises yet another vexing issue that must await future
research: Might using mindfulness practices to curb the costs of
mind-wandering also reduce some of the (albeit less well docu-
mented) benefits of mind-wandering? If mind-wandering has some
benefits, might mindfulness have some costs? In all likelihood the
answer will lie, as in so many things, with finding the right
balance. With the right metacognitive strategies it may well be
possible to be mindful when the task demands it and to produc-
tively mind-wander when the circumstances allow it.
De multiples preuves suggèrent que, typiquement, la rêverie nuit
de façon importante au rendement. Des lacunes dans le rendement
attribuables a
la rêverie ont été observées dans divers contextes, en
particulier en lecture, dans les tests exigeant une attention soutenue
et les tests d’aptitude. Il a été montré que la rêverie nuit a
compréhension de lecture, a
l’assemblage de modèles réduits, a
capacité de retenir des réponses automatisées et au rendement dans
le cadre de tests évaluant la mémoire de travail et l’intelligence.
Ces coûts, qui ont été déterminés de façon empirique, ont permis
de suggérer que la rêverie pouvait constituer un échec pur de la
maîtrise cognitive et ainsi offrir peu d’avantages. Toutefois, des
preuves émergentes suggèrent que la rêverie n’est pas entièrement
pernicieuse. Des études récentes ont révélé que la rêverie pourrait
jouer un rôle déterminant a
la fois dans la planification autobi-
ographique et la résolution créative de problèmes, ce qui constitu-
erait au moins deux fonctions adaptatives possibles du phénomène.
Cet article examine les coûts constatés ainsi que les fonctions
possibles de la rêverie, pour ensuite établir d’importantes voies de
recherche futures.
Mots-clés : rêverie, lecture, attention, créativité, planification au-
tobiographique, pleine conscience.
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Received July 31, 2012
Accepted November 27, 2012
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... For example, states of relatively strong theta and weak alpha rhythmicity in sensory areas are a signature of strong attentional engagement (Lakatos et al., 2016). Moreover it is known that participants do not sustain a constant level of attention during a task, but they repeatedly drift into mind wandering (Mooneyham and Schooler, 2013). We hypothesized that our participants may have gone through different states, for example of higher and lower attentional engagement. ...
Full-text available
Several studies have probed perceptual performance at different times after a self-paced motor action and found frequency-specific modulations of perceptual performance phase-locked to the action. Such action-related modulation has been reported for various frequencies and modulation strengths. In an attempt to establish a basic effect at the population level, we had a relatively large number of participants (n=50) perform a self-paced button press followed by a detection task at threshold, and we applied both fixed- and random-effects tests. The combined data of all trials and participants surprisingly did not show any significant action-related modulation. However, based on previous studies, we explored the possibility that such modulation depends on the participant's internal state. Indeed, when we split trials based on performance in neighboring trials, then trials in periods of low performance showed an action-related modulation at approximately 17 Hz. When we split trials based on the performance in the preceding trial, we found that trials following a ''miss'' showed an action-related modulation at approximately 17 Hz. Finally, when we split participants based on their false-alarm rate, we found that participants with no false alarms showed an action-related modulation at approximately 17 Hz. All these effects were significant in random-effects tests, supporting an inference on the population. Together, these findings indicate that action-related modulations are not always detectable. However, the results suggest that specific internal states such as lower attentional engagement and/or higher decision criterion are characterized by a modulation in the beta-frequency range.
... A common occurrence in everyday life involves engaging in a panoply of thoughts encompassing a variety of content that unfold in different ways over time (Mckeown et al., 2021;Mills et al., 2018;Poerio et al., 2013). Examined in the context of mind wandering, this work has revealed wide ranging detrimental consequences in task performance and affective well-being on one hand (Mooneyham & Schooler, 2013) and positive outcomes in creative problem solving and future planning on the other (McMillan et al., 2013); though findings on the relationship between mind wandering and creativity have been mixed (Smeekens & Kane, 2016;Steindorf et al., 2021;Zedelius et al., 2021). Many of these studies have conceptualized mind wandering as taskunrelated thought, which is characterized by a shift in the focus of thoughts away from the ongoing task (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006. ...
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Commonly used to characterize mind wandering, task-unrelated thought has long been associated with negative affective outcomes. However, less is known about how other thought dimensions including intentionality and freedom of movement interact with task-unrelated thought to modulate momentary affect in everyday life. To address this, we used ecological momentary assessments to prompt participants to report their thought patterns and affective valence five times a day for seven consecutive days. Each assessment asked participants to report on their affective valence as well as several thought dimensions including their task-relatedness, intentionality and freedom of movement. We examined the latter two thought dimensions alone as well as how they interacted with the commonly examined dimension of task-relatedness with respect to their relationship to momentary affect. We replicated the well-established negative relationship between task-unrelated thought and momentary affect. Furthermore, unintentional task-unrelated thought was associated with more negative affect than intentional thought. This pattern was also observed more broadly in thoughts regardless of their task relevance. In contrast, freely moving thought was positively related to momentary affect in general. A significant interaction between task-relatedness and freedom of movement of thought revealed that the commonly reported negative relationship between task-unrelated thought and more negative affect is mitigated by freely moving thought. In summary, our findings indicate that these various thought dimensions have unique relationships with momentary affect, highlighting the importance of accounting for thought dimensions in establishing its affective and possibly other functional consequences.
Mind wandering (MW) is a mental activity in which our thoughts drift away and turn into internal notions and feelings. Research suggests that individuals spend up to one half of their waking hours thinking about task-unrelated things. Being the opposite of goal-directed thinking, empirical evidence suggests that MW can forester creativity and problem solving. However, and despite growing efforts to understand the role of MW in technology-related settings, the role of individual differences remains unclear. We address this gap by proposing a research model that seeks to shed further light on age-related differences in MW while using different types of technology (i.e., hedonic and utilitarian systems). Thereby, we provide a point of departure for further research on how individual characteristics influence MW while using technology.KeywordsMind wanderingTechnology useAgeHedonic and utilitarian systems
One of the essential characteristics that differentiate animal and plant species is their ability to move in space. It thus appears that motor skills condition the development of cognition. In this respect, the present thesis begins with a triple observation, that: (1) attention is subordinated to action, (2) there is an intimate relationship between attentional control and sensorimotor control through the exercise of sustained attention, and (3) there is a second (inverse) relationship between attentional control and sensorimotor control through the exercise of stillness. Through work on brain electrophysiology in different attentional conditions - action observation, attention deficit (with or without hyperactivity), and mindfulness meditation - the present thesis aims to contribute to the identification of brain dynamics underlying attentional control and the ways in which the exercise of this control can, in turn, modulate the brain's procedural activities. After a detailed review of the fundamental properties of attention, the general principles of electroencephalogram, and the neural correlates underlying attentional control, we preliminarily focused on the oscillatory dynamics associated with visual attention. From an experimental point of view, the aim was to distinguish the different functional components (visual, attentional, sensorimotor) of the brain rhythms by modifying the visual information (an animation of walking) passively submitted to the subject's attention. On this basis, we next explored brain dynamics in children with attention deficit (with/without hyperactivity, ADHD) during an attention/inhibition task (Cue-GO/NoGO). We showed an alteration of the rhythms linked to the processing of visual information. From a neuroanatomical point of view, our data indicated that this deficit would be based on an imbalance between the two fronto-parietal attention systems, ventral-medial and dorso-lateral, which could make these children more sensitive to the salience of visual information and induce less flexibility in cognitive control. In contrast, we showed that the 'non-reactive' dimension of mindfulness altered the temporal dynamics of large-scale neural networks. This effect appeared to be support by increased cerebellum activity, and to induce less (re)activity of the attentional salience network to distractions. The theoretical and potentially clinical implications of these results are discussed, taking into account the specific scientific context of each study, the analytical tools used (event-related potentials, source location, microstates) and their limitations. In sum, our data suggest that mindfulness meditation may induce a reorganization of the cortico-subcortical loops that govern attentional behavior, and may be useful in the treatment of ADHD.
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Drawing on perspectives from music psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, musicology, clinical psychology, and music education, Music and Mental Imagery provides a critical overview of cutting-edge research on the various types of mental imagery associated with music. The four main parts cover an introduction to the different types of mental imagery associated with music such as auditory/musical, visual, kinaesthetic, and multimodal mental imagery; a critical assessment of established and novel ways to measure mental imagery in various musical contexts; coverage of different states of consciousness, all of which are relevant for, and often associated with, mental imagery in music, and a critical overview of applications of mental imagery in health, educational, and performance settings. By both critically reviewing up-to-date scientific research and offering new empirical results, this book provides a unique overview of the different types and origins of mental imagery in musical contexts, various ways to measure them, and intriguing insights into related mental phenomena such as mind-wandering and synaesthesia. This will be of particular interest for scholars and researchers of music psychology and music education. It will also be useful for practitioners working with music in applied health and educational contexts.
Cognitive theory of boredom presumes that boredom, an important potential indicator for self-dysregulation, represents to be the result of attention failure. And lapses of attention have been shown to act as a key signal in mind wandering (especially spontaneous mind wandering), which has been found to be positively associated with boredom. If both mind wandering and boredom concurrently occupy individuals' on-task processing resources, it would definitely influence their cognitive flexibility, which is an essential component for self-regulation. Until now, however, there has been little discussion about mind wandering, boredom, and cognitive flexibility at the same time. The present study investigated the hypothesis that boredom can mediate the effect of mind wandering on cognitive flexibility at trait-level by adopting a cross-sectional exploratory study design and anonymous structured questionnaires in three studies (N = 449,182 and 190 for Studies 1, 2 and 3, respectively). Correlation analysis demonstrated that mind wandering (especially spontaneous mind wandering) was positively related to boredom, and that cognitive flexibility was negatively related to mind wandering and boredom, respectively. Mediation analysis revealed an indirect effect of mind wandering (especially spontaneous mind wandering) on cognitive flexibility through boredom. In conclusion, these findings are useful to build a theoretical framework for future clinical practice. An implication of these findings is the possibility that efficacious strategies targeting at reducing boredom are needed to decrease the detriment effect of spontaneous mind wandering on cognitive flexibility.
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Boredom poses a fascinating riddle: Although it is a ubiquitous experience, lay people and researchers often struggle with expressing what boredom actually is, and how it should be differentiated from related or opposite psychological phenomena. In this chapter, we address this riddle in two parts. First, we define boredom and its function. We propose that boredom is a state of inadequate function utilization that occurs when reward prediction error has been minimized. Boredom's suggested evolutionary function is to drive exploration. Boredom is therefore understood to have a critical role for the effective regulation of behavior. Second, we differentiate boredom from a host of emotions and states it has frequently been likened to (or even been equated with), such as depression, amotivation, apathy or boredom being the polar opposite of flow.
The task of finding a case type that, on average, enhances the processing of verbal material has yielded mixed results in the literature. This study tackled this issue with an eye to the issue of processing textual information on road signs and the additional consideration of readers’ attentive states. Participants ( n = 104) completed three experiments, the first two of which made use of both short (i.e., attentive state) and long (i.e., nonattentive or mind-wandering state) inter-trial intervals (ITIs). Experiment I consisted of a living versus non-living category-decision task involving the presentation of single words. Experiment II consisted of a sensical versus nonsensical sentence-judgment task. Experiment III consisted of a recognition memory task for words presented during the category-decision task. No significant difference in letter-case-type effectiveness was found for either the semantic categorization of or memory for single words. On the other hand, sensical sentences were correctly judged more quickly in lower case (or, more precisely, sentence case with the first letter of the first word capitalized). Such results point to either a more fluent processing of or enhanced conceptual resonance for sentences presented in lower case.
As interest in creativity explodes, it has become more complicated to decide how to best nurture creativity in our schools. There are the controversial Common Core Standards in many states. Meanwhile, the classroom has become increasingly digital; it is easier to access information, communicate ideas, and learn from people across the world. Many countries now include cultivating creativity as a national educational policy recommendation, yet there is still debate over best practices. Indeed, many well-intentioned educators may institute programs that may not reach the desired outcome. The notion that schools 'kill creativity' has become a widespread social meme. We view such beliefs as both hyperbolic and problematic: they allow us to recognize there is a problem but not solve it. In this book, a wide array of international experts addresses these issues, discussing theories and research that focus on how to nurture creativity in K-12 and college-level classrooms.
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Nearly 60 years ago, Jerome L. Singer launched a groundbreaking research program into daydreaming (Singer, 1955, 1975, 2009) that presaged and laid the foundation for virtually every major strand of mind wandering research active today (Antrobus, 1999; Klinger, 1999, 2009). Here we review Singer's enormous contribution to the field, which includes insights, methodologies, and tools still in use today, and trace his enduring legacy as revealed in the recent proliferation of mind wandering studies. We then turn to the central theme in Singer's work, the adaptive nature of positive constructive daydreaming, which was a revolutionary idea when Singer began his work in the 1950s and remains underreported today. Last, we propose a new approach to answering the enduring question: Why does mind wandering persist and occupy so much of our time, as much as 50% of our waking time according to some estimates, if it is as costly as most studies suggest?
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Given that the ability to attend to a task without distraction underlies performance in a wide variety of contexts, training one's ability to stay on task should result in a similarly broad enhancement of performance. In a randomized controlled investigation, we examined whether a 2-week mindfulness-training course would decrease mind wandering and improve cognitive performance. Mindfulness training improved both GRE reading-comprehension scores and working memory capacity while simultaneously reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts during completion of the GRE and the measure of working memory. Improvements in performance following mindfulness training were mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who were prone to distraction at pretesting. Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences.
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Although anecdotes that creative thoughts often arise when one is engaged in an unrelated train of thought date back thousands of years, empirical research has not yet investigated this potentially critical source of inspiration. We used an incubation paradigm to assess whether performance on validated creativity problems (the Unusual Uses Task, or UUT) can be facilitated by engaging in either a demanding task or an undemanding task that maximizes mind wandering. Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems. Critically, the context that improved performance after the incubation period was associated with higher levels of mind wandering but not with a greater number of explicitly directed thoughts about the UUT. These data suggest that engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.
Understanding the factors underlying variation in attentional state is critical in a number of domains. Here, we investigate the relation between time on task and mind wandering (i.e., a state of decoupled attention) in the context of a lecture. Lectures are the primary means of knowledge transmission in post secondary education rendering an understanding of attentional variations in lectures a pressing practical concern. We report two experiments wherein participants watched a video recorded lecture either alone (Experiment 1) or in a classroom context (Experiment 2). Participants responded to mind wandering probes at various times in the lecture in an effort to track variations in mind wandering over time. In addition, following the lecture, memory for the lecture material was tested. Results demonstrate that in a lecture mind wandering increases with time on task and memory for the lecture material decreases. In addition, there was a significant relation between mind wandering and memory for lecture material. Theoretical and practical applications of the present results are discussed.
When not engaged in demanding tasks, we commonly experience streams of thoughts and images quite unrelated to immediate sensory input. Such stimulus-independent (SI) thoughts may be troublesome, as in worry, insomnia and depression.Previous research within a working memory paradigm suggested that SI thought production depended on central executive control resources. To explore this hypothesis further, we examined the interference with SI thought production resulting from shadowing auditorily presented digits compared to remembering them. Effects of stimulus presentation rate and size of memory load were also examined. At slow presentation rates, remembering produced more interference than shadowing. For shadowing, faster presentation produced greater interference than slow presentation. In remembering, interference was not substantially affected by size of memory load, was greater when subjects reported greater awareness of task stimuli, and was restricted to thoughts forming parts of connected sequences.The results are consistent with the view that production of connected sequences of SI thoughts depends on central executive control resources, that tasks interfere with thoughts to the extent that they make continuous demands on these resources, and that high subjective awareness of task stimuli is a marker that these resources are deployed to task management rather than thought production. The results are not consistent with Antro-bus' view that interference with SI thoughts by tasks is simply a function of the rate of processing information from external sources required by the task.
Examined the relationships between measures of personality (the NEO-FFI), Emotionality (Positive and Negative), and Daydreaming (the Short Imaginal Processes Inventory [SIPI]) to assess hypotheses about private experience, behavioral and affective tendencies. 103 college students (aged 18–38 yrs) completed questionnaires. As predicted, Positive-Constructive Daydreaming was positively correlated with the NEO "Big Five" dimension of Openness, Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming loaded with both the NEO Neuroticism scale and the Negative Emotionality measure. Poor Attentional Control of the SIPI was linked negatively with Conscientiousness and Positive Emotionality. Results further suggest that Extraversion may be primarily social as measured in the NEO while a separate Thinking Introversion-Extraversion dimension in the sense used by Jung and Guilford may be reflected by the personality-daydreaming results obtained. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)