What is mind wandering? [Source]
Mind wandering is ubiquitous to the human experience and may be the brain's default process. It is an occurrence that 96% of American adults say they experience daily, and it occupies up to 50% of the waking day. How is it actually defined? One common and consistent definition is that mind wandering is when an individual's thoughts shift away from the task at hand; it is often referred to as task-unrelated thoughts. What is not consistent, however, is the use of the term mind wandering. There are so many different terms used to describe task-unrelated thought that many authors include a list of the terms that have been used over the years. Some of the terms that have been used in place of mind wandering include daydreaming, spontaneous thought, fantasy, zoning out, thought intrusions, task-irrelevant thoughts, perceptual decoupling, stimulus-independent thought, unconscious thought, internally generated thoughts, offline thought, incidental self-processing, undirected thought, and self-generated thought.
All of these terms are in some way a reference to task-unrelated thoughts. Some are perfect synonyms of each other, whereas others have subtle differences. Of these highly similar if not entirely identical terms, daydreaming seems to have a special, more complicated relationship with mind wandering than the others. Some authors see the two terms as interchangeable, others acknowledge the similarities but maintain a minor, though unspecified, distinction, and some refer to mind wandering as a type of daydreaming or vice versa. With few exceptions, however, it seems that daydreaming and mind wandering are close enough to the same cognitive state that they can be used in tandem if not interchangeably. The use of the term “mind wandering” over daydreaming is more common in recent research. Perhaps, it is because mind wondering carries a broader connotation than daydreaming. Perhaps, it is because of the growth of the area of mindfulness, and mind wandering therefore provides a more linguistically symmetrical counterbalance than daydreaming. Whatever the reason, though there may be a difference, these terms are too similar and too frequently used interchangeably in the literature to be considered distinct. Therefore, any previous references in the literature to task-unrelated thoughts, either as mind wandering or daydreaming, should be considered the same thing. Using mind wandering as the preferred term moving forward will not only help to eliminate the confusion between daydreaming and mind wandering but also eliminate the need for the litany of synonyms referenced earlier.
This first step may cause some disagreement, but it is an important one in clarifying the language and simplifying communication. By choosing to use the term mind wandering from this point forward, nothing from the past has been dismissed or changed. It marks an intentional shift, a deliberate unification in the language.
Having established what mind wandering encompasses, the next step is to identify its main components. To best accomplish this task, the literature was reviewed to identify the various elements referenced as comprising mind wandering. These include both major aspects and secondary factors less consistently used that may further refine how mind wandering is evaluated. As with mind wandering itself, many of these concepts are referred to by multiple names in the literature.
Creating a framework for these elements makes it easier to evaluate and discuss mind wandering more systematically, comprehensively, and consistently. Two of the major factors relevant to most, if not all, types of mind wandering are intentionality (if the mind wandering is deliberate or spontaneous) and plausibility (how close the mind wandering is to reality). The secondary elements that may not apply to all situations are time (future- or past-oriented thoughts), purpose (if the mind wandering involves planning or merely pondering), focus (self- or others-oriented thoughts), and valence (positive or negative). Each of these elements of mind wandering will be explored in greater detail later [behind a paywall].
Mind-wandering (sometimes referred to as, or, colloquially, ) is the experience of thoughts not remaining on a single topic for a long period of time, particularly when people are engaged in an attention-demanding task.
Mind-wandering tends to occur during driving, reading and other activities where vigilance may be low. In these situations, people do not remember what happened in the surrounding environment because they are preoccupied with their thoughts. This is known as the decoupling hypothesis. Studies using event-related potentials (ERPs) have quantified the extent that mind-wandering reduces the cortical processing of the external environment. When thoughts are unrelated to the task at hand, the brain processes both task-relevant and unrelated sensory information in a less detailed manner.
Mind-wandering appears to be a stable trait of people and a transient state. Studies have linked performance problems in the laboratory and in daily life. Mind-wandering has been associated with possible car accidents. Mind-wandering is also intimately linked to states of affect. Studies indicate that task-unrelated thoughts are common in people with low or depressed mood. Mind-wandering also occurs when a person is intoxicated via the consumption of alcohol.
Studies have demonstrated a prospective bias to spontaneous thought because individuals tend to engage in more future than past related thoughts during mind-wandering. The default mode network is thought to be involved in mind-wandering and internally directed thought, although recent work has challenged this assumption.
There is an intimate, dynamic interplay between mind-wandering and metacognition. Metacognition corrects the wandering mind, suppressing spontaneous thoughts and bringing attention back to more "worthwhile" tasks.
- Originating or produced within an organism, tissue, or cell. Occurring without an obvious cause external to the body, and believed to result from an internal cause. Proceeding from within; derived internally.
Please note: The Jonathan Schooler interview does not load by default. To listen to the interview about Mind Wandering and Meta Awareness, scroll to the bottom of the list below the SoundCloud player and click on "Meta-awareness and mind wandering".
What follows is from the SoundCloud page for this interview.
How much do we think about thinking? How aware usually are we of our awareness, and about what is happening around us? Jonathan Schooler, professor of psychology at the University of California (Santa Barbara), whose research focuses on consciousness, memory, meta-awareness, mind-wandering, and mindfulness, describes meta awareness as our ability to take explicit note of the current contents of consciousness. He notes that when we are not focusing on what is happening around us, we generate imaginative thoughts that are unrelated to external circumstances. It is common to experience such imaginative thoughts and experience moments when our minds have wandered away from the situation at hand. Schooler suggests that mind wandering is indicative of different kinds of attentional fluctuations.
In this podcast Schooler describes mind-wandering as a phenomenon when a person’s attention is less directed towards external environment and it shifts more towards an internal train of thought. But is mind-wandering an attribute of attention or is this an attribute of consciousness? Jonathan Schooler shares his views on this.
In this podcast, we also touch upon:
Mind-wandering: day dreaming vs planning for future and goal setting Measuring frequency of mind-wandering: is there a scale to estimate the level of mind wandering an individual is involved in?
What level and frequency of mind-wandering should be considered as a problem and not a tool to plan and imagine our future?
Is there any evidence that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is associated with increased frequency of mind wandering?
Can we say that mindfulness is a state when no mind wandering is going on? In their publications, Jonathan and his colleagues suggest that mindfulness training might hold potential for reducing mind wandering. So a question is that what kind of mindfulness training can assist us in reducing mind-wandering?
The secret of health for both mind and body
Mind wandering is the common mental state whereby task-oriented thoughts are hijacked by internally generated, unrelated, or “wandering” thoughts, usually with little metaawareness of this process (Schooler et al., 2011). Studies of mind wandering may provide new insights into mental and physical health, and the link between the two. William James, in his examination of the “stream of consciousness,” pointed to mind wandering as a defining aspect of self: “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui (master of oneself) if he have it not” (James, 1890, p. 424). Mind wandering, which tends to fill almost 50% of our mental time, appears to be intricately tied to well-being and predicts daily unhappiness (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). Conversely, negative mood is linked to increased mind wandering, as shown experimentally (Smallwood, Fitzgerald, Miles, & Phillips, 2009).
The antithesis of mind wandering might be thought of as the ability to sustain focus on the moment. Present focus has often been studied as part of the larger multidimensional construct of mindfulness, as defined in Western science. Mindfulness includes paying attention to the moment, with intention and without judgment, and “disengaging oneself from strong attachment to beliefs, thoughts, or emotions,” which in turn is predicted to reduce suffering and promote well-being (Ludwig & Kabat-Zinn, 2008). Indeed, training in the ability to be more mindful is consistently related to improvements in psychological well-being and physical health, typically as selfreported health measures (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004).
The belief that presence of mind is intricately linked to well-being and longevity has roots in many ancient contemplative traditions. For example, living according to certain Buddhist principles, including fostering a present orientation through meditation, is thought to allow one to live to 100 years (Gethin, 2001). In Taoism, meditation training is thought to increase longevity and in some cases to promote immortality through increasing life force (Olson, 2003). Beyond the studies on mindfulness and health, no studies have directly examined whether mind wandering or presence of mind are associated with any objective measures of longevity. However, there are now several established measures of biological aging, notably telomere length, that make such a test possible.
We assessed the relationship of mind-wandering tendency to telomere length, an emerging biomarker for cellular and general bodily aging. Telomeres are the DNA-based caps that protect the chromosome termini. Telomeres typically shorten with age and psychological and physiological stressors, and telomere shortness predicts early disease and mortality (Lin, Epel, & Blackburn, 2011). Telomere shortness may be a useful marker of accelerated aging early in life as well, as violence exposure has been linked to telomere shortening in children (Shalev et al., 2012). Although links between telomere length and severe states of stress and clinical syndromes have now been well established, few studies have examined whether telomere length is associated with psychological processes such as mindfulness or mind wandering. …
… Discussion In the study of attention and consciousness, mind wandering is an important construct, defined as task-irrelevant thought and thus contrary to attentional focus on the present. Our findings suggest it may play a key role linking mental and physical health. We found a greater tendency to mind wander was related to shorter TL and thus, by inference, to accelerated cellular aging across immune cell types. These findings remained robust after adjusting for confounds. This result is significant because it represents a link between the wandering nature of the mind, a fundamental characteristic of human minds, and a fundamental indicator of the capacities for cell division and human health. Although we report merely an association here, it is possible that greater presence of mind promotes a healthy biochemical milieu and, in turn, cell longevity. If so, cognitive or meditative interventions that target executive function, such as attention and working memory, may promote less mind wandering, ultimately enhancing healthy human aging. The effect size appears meaningful. Those with the highest level of mind wandering had telomeres that were shorter by around 200 base pairs compared to those with the least mind wandering. Based on how many base pairs are lost per year according to cross-sectional studies by age, this would be equivalent to about 4 years of additional aging. Cross-sectional data suggest that telomeres decline slowly in adulthood, with a loss of around 30 to 60 base pairs per year on average. Therefore, it is traditional in telomere research to calculate effect sizes in terms of base pairs per year lost. We have done this to allow for comparisons with other papers. However, now that longitudinal studies are emerging, it is clear that individuals show dynamic change over shorter periods, not just losses but sometimes gains in TL (Epel, in press). Thus, any measure of base pairs lost per year is only a crude average across individuals. …
…There is a vast divide between mind wandering and cell aging, and understanding any causal mechanistic links between the two could provide a better understanding of the mind– body relationship. At the least, this finding opens the door to new questions about the experiential aspect of the flow of thought and why this appears to be tied to fundamental cell biology. Which aspects of mind wandering matter the most? …
… In summary, despite the limitations of the current study, self-reported attentional state appears important to immune cell aging. A highly wandering mind may indicate a more rapidly aging body. Future studies are needed to replicate and further demonstrate the generalizability and mechanism of this novel relationship.
What Is the Default Mode Network?
The default mode network (DMN) is a system of connected brain areas that show increased activity when a person is not focused on what is happening around them. The DMN is especially active, research shows, when one engages in introspective activities such as daydreaming, contemplating the past or the future, or thinking about the perspective of another person. Unfettered daydreaming can often lead to creativity. he default mode network is also active when a person is awake. However, in a resting state, when a person is not engaged in any demanding, externally oriented mental task, the mind shifts into “default.”
You know the feeling of walking to the train station for your morning commute, but your mind checks out and your body operates on autopilot . Your body goes through the motions of getting you to work without taxing the brain, all of which sounds beneficial. It is indeed useful, but only up to a point. The problem: You do not remember much about that commute because your default mode network kicked in, you may start with daydreaming, but you start to ruminate over what happened the day before and what will happen in the days to come. You are anxious about past performance, and you are anxious about upcoming performance. The default mode network can hijack the mind to mull over worries.
The Role of the Default Mode Network in Mental Illness
The default mode network is about self-focus and mental time-travel, and its inactivity appears to be related to varied forms of mental illness. The DMN is involved in episodic memory processing, with introspection and autobiographic memory as important cognitive processes. Researchers have reported dysregulation between the components of the default mode network in patients with Alzheimer’s disease as well as those with Parkinson’s disease, illnesses that affect memory processing.
What is the default mode network’s role in rumination and depression?
Connectivity between particular default mode network areas of the brain has been linked to higher levels of rumination in& depressed individuals. The depressive among us ruminate about their regrets, failures, shame, and anger. Further links with default mode network dysregulation have been made to autism, schizophrenia, and other conditions.
What is the default mode network’s role in loneliness?
The default mode network is more connected in the brains of lonely people. There is more activity in the DMN in the brains of lonely people. These people spend a lot of time thinking about what happened in the past and what will happen in the future, all with feelings of worry, anxiety, and dread.
What is the default mode network’s role in creativity?
The DMN is also thought to play a role, in combination with other brain networks, in key qualities such as creativity. As a person idles and her mind drifts, the activity of the DMN may help give rise to ideas that other networks then vet and process further.
Is the default mode network active during sleep?
Studies show that the default mode network is also active during sleep. An active DMN has been associated with mental imagery and dreaming. In a study that appeared in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, daydreaming and dreaming may use similar brain mechanisms. The state of dreaming is a more intense version of daydreaming or waking mind wandering. Dreams are longer and more visual, and more strongly engaged in the DMN.
How the Default Mode Operates
The default mode network, discovered by neurologist Marcus Raichle, spans a number of brain regions, incorporating parts of the prefrontal, parietal, and temporal cortices that show joint activation, or deactivation, in connection with particular mental functions. It is one of a number of such brain networks, which also include the salience network and the executive control network.
What is the salience network in the brain?
This network uses nodes in the insular cortex; it alerts us to what is important, and where we should focus our attention. If you are feeling fearful, the salience network kicks in, searching for threats that may endanger you.
What is the executive control network?
The executive control network monitors what is happening around us, it manages emotional parts of the brain, it directs our attention, and is crucial in decision-making. It also helps process sensory and memory information.
What is the task-positive network?
The task-positive network is known as the opposite of the default mode network. The brain’s TPN kicks in when we are focused and engaged in a task. Also known as the dorsal attention network, this network involves part of the brain including the prefrontal regions and the intraparietal sulcus. If a task demands attention, the task-positive network wants to be as alert as possible.
Calming the Default Mode Network
Is meditation especially useful in disengaging the default mode network?
In a study of meditators, some were more adept at meditating and others more neophyte. The more experienced meditators had much less activity in the default mode network, they were much better than the neophyte in curtailing mind wandering. In another study that appeared in Biological Psychiatry, researchers also found that meditation quiets the DMN and boosts well-being through decreased inflammation and stress.
Can time spent in nature disengage the default mode network?
Any experience of awe, such as hiking to a mountain top or watching the moon rise or swimming in the ocean, can take you out of your mind. Your focus is not on everyday worries, but more on the big picture. We are insignificant in the grand scheme, and we do not have to stew in our troubles.
Also Default mode network at Wikipedia