Recent research shows that we spend up to half of our waking lives mind-wandering, or lost in spontaneous thoughts, daydreams or fantasies that have little or nothing to do with ongoing tasks and events in our current environment. Think of that boring meeting that just wouldn’t end, the drive home after a day of work or that long article you’ve been meaning to read, but just can’t concentrate on.
Research on mind-wandering raises a number of important questions about our conscious mental lives. Given that we spend so much of our time lost in spontaneous thought, but often don’t seem to notice that our minds have wandered: how aware are we really of our conscious thoughts, and to what extent are we able to control our attention?
“Initially, many people are surprised to learn about the frequency of mind-wandering,” philosophy lecturer Dr Jennifer Windt, said.
“Many also see mind-wandering in a negative light and think the tendency of our thoughts to drift away from ongoing tasks is something to be combatted, for instance through the practice of mindfulness.”
But according to Dr Windt, there is a lot of diversity in what the mind is doing when it’s left to its own devices. We’re not necessarily always unaware that we are mind-wandering, and sometimes we can even let our thoughts drift away from ongoing tasks intentionally. Just think, again, of that boring meeting where you've allowed yourself to slip into a daydream about your next vacation – or maybe even realised there was a better solution to a problem that previously left you stumped. This diversity raises important questions about how to define different kinds of spontaneous thoughts and relate them to attention, awareness, and control. It also raises important questions about what these states are good for.
On the one hand, mind-wandering does seem to decrease performance on a number of tasks. For instance, consider reading comprehension, driving, or students mind wandering during lectures. Dr Windt explains, “when we’re not in control of attention and aren’t even aware that our thoughts have drifted, this negatively impacts performance on attention-demanding tasks.”
But on the other hand, given that almost half of our conscious thoughts are spent mind-wandering, it seems these spontaneous processes must be good for something.
Recent research has been exploring the potential benefits of mind-wandering and there is evidence that it may play an important role in future planning and creativity. What exactly is the mind doing when it’s left to its own devices? And given that spontaneous thoughts are largely directed away from what we are currently supposed to be doing, how can we investigate them in a controlled manner?
Dr Windt wants to approach these questions from a perspective that doesn’t just look at wakefulness. She wants to investigate fluctuations in conscious thoughts and attention across the sleep-wake cycle. Spontaneous thoughts are frequent in wakefulness, but they are even more frequent in sleep.
Dreams, in which we feel immersed in alternative environments and in which the mind creates rich, complex and often emotionally intense narratives, are just the extreme end of the spectrum. But even in the deeper stages of sleep and when we first drift off to sleep, we often experience thoughts and images that fall short of immersive dreams, but are still similar, in important ways, to spontaneous thoughts and fantasies in wakefulness.
“As is the case for mind-wandering, most people only rarely remember their dreams. Even if you ask them to pay attention to their dreams, they’ll often report just a few dreams per week, and rarely more than a single dream per night,” she said.
But if you actually wake people up in the sleep lab, the situation changes dramatically. They can report multiple dreams per night, plus various other kinds of thoughts and images that occur throughout sleep.
“Again, as with waking mind-wandering, it’s surprising to consider how much conscious mental activity we’re missing. In my research, I want to look at spontaneous mental states – both in sleep and in wakefulness and investigate how they’re related and how they’re different. This can help distinguish different types of spontaneous thoughts and might shed light on the various costs and benefits of mind wandering,” Dr Windt said.
Dr Windt also seeks to explore how research on mind-wandering impacts our understanding of ourselves and of the nature of our minds. While some philosophers think the frequency of mind-wandering shows that most of time we just aren’t cognitive agents in any interesting sense, Dr Windt thinks this research requires re-thinking on what it means to guide and control one’s mental states. It could turn out that many of our goals and interests, as well as the personal narratives we weave about ourselves, are actually beyond our deliberate control. But this isn’t necessarily bad news.
At least sometimes, our spontaneous thoughts might help us decide what to do next, or might even re-script our own personal narratives, actively shaping who we are and who we take ourselves to be.
Better understanding spontaneous thought in waking and sleep can also, she says, inform research on sleep disorders and mental health. For instance, it might shed light on how fatigue and sleep disturbances impact waking thought and attention. This can lead to interdisciplinary collaborations and inform empirical research to better diagnose sleep disorders and improve treatments.
But there could also be other concrete outcomes like mind-wandering in education. It’s not just a problem of students doing it in boring lectures – chances are they are probably also doing it in engaging lectures quite a lot of the time. Some of those spontaneous thoughts, new research suggests, might actually be helping students to think through the material. But the challenge, Windt says, is how to figure out which ones and how to facilitate them while avoiding those that are simply distracting.
“You can’t just say students are mind-wandering because they are tired, disengaged and not properly paying attention,” Dr Windt said.
“Part of the reason is that this is just how our minds work – and we are only beginning to grasp the extent and diversity of spontaneous thought processes. I think we need new ways to think about these mental states as well as new methods to investigate them. I hope that my research can contribute to this process.”