You are driving to work, thinking about work, and home and your weekend plans, and before you know it, you have pulled into the parking lot of your office. You are surprised to realize that you don’t even remember the drive. The last thing you really remember is getting into your car.
What happened during the 20 minutes you were driving? You were “mind wandering”.
How common is mind wandering? — If you ask people that question they estimate that mind wandering happens 10% of the time. But it’s actually much more common. According to Jonathan Schooler of UC, Santa Barbara, your mind is wandering at least 30% of the time when you are doing your normal day-to-day tasks, and in some cases—for example, when driving on an uncrowded highway—it might be as high as 70%.
Mind wandering is our natural state of our brains at rest — Malia Mason recorded peoples’ brain activity and correlated that to self-reports of mind wandering. When people reported that their mind was wandering their brains showed activity in several cortical regions that are the same regions that are active when our brains are “at rest." These areas are always operating in the background. So mind wandering is a natural part of how our brains work.
The multi-tasking mind-wanderer — Mind wandering allows one part of the brain to focus on the task at hand, and another part of the brain to keep a higher goal in mind. Mind wandering might be the closest thing we have to multi-tasking. Multi-tasking doesn’t really exist, but mind wandering does allow you to switch focus from one idea to another, and then back again quickly.
The link between mind wandering and creativity — Researchers at UC, Santa Barbara have shown that people whose mind wanders a lot are more creative and better problem solvers. They are able to work on the task at hand, while simultaneously processing other information and making connections amongst ideas. Specifically, the ability to come in and out of mind wandering at will is very significant, and is the hallmark of the most creative people.
Embrace the wandering mind — Now that you know that minds wander at least a third of the time or more, what can you or should you do about it? Well, you really can't do much to stop it! Mind wandering is not all bad. Since we know that mind wandering is related to creativity, try to change your attitude about it. If someone is sitting at their desk staring into space they might be thinking about their dog, but they might also be doing creative thinking.
Christoff, Kalina, Gordon, A. M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R., and Schooler, J. 2009. “Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(21): 8719–24.
Mason, Malia, Michael Norton, John Van Horn, Daniel Wegner, Scott Grafton and C. Neil Macrae. 2007. “Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought.” Science. 315 (5810): 393-395. DOI: 10.1126/science.1131295