Hal McDonald
Source: Hal McDonald

In James Thurber’s classic 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a henpecked husband has trouble keeping his mind on the here and now, drifting off instead into fantasies of heroic exploits in which he selflessly and dramatically steps up to save the day, in whatever colorful manner it needs to be saved.  These flights of fancy provide him a temporary mental escape from the tyranny of his termagant wife, but his failure to attend his current external circumstances consistently places him in embarrassing or inconvenient situations.

While few of us are subject to such complete flights of fancy as Walter Mitty is, all of us experience occasional bouts of mind-wandering—episodes in which our attention drifts away from the task or activity at hand and turns inward to our mental reflections on the past, present, and future.  Maybe we’re reading a book, and suddenly become aware that we have absolutely no idea what the last three or four pages said.  Or perhaps we’re making our daily commute to work and find ourselves turning onto the parking lot of our office building with little or no recollection of the miles we’ve driven since we turned out of the driveway at our house.  When catching ourselves in such a lapse of exterior attention, our typical reaction is annoyance at our own perceived lack of mental willpower, and perhaps even a touch of fear at the realization that our bodies have navigated several miles of rush hour traffic without the conscious guidance of our minds.

Such departures of our attention from our present circumstances can, in fact, be frustrating, or even downright dangerous depending on the nature of the task from which our mind has wandered.  A growing body of evidence, however, indicates that, in addition to the obvious liabilities it entails, mind-wandering offers a number of unexpected benefits.  A recent behavioral and neuroimaging study at York University revealed one such benefit.

Participants in the study were asked to write for fifteen minutes on three of their most important goals in life, and then completed a cognitive task (matching a sequence of shapes on a computer screen), during which they were periodically interrupted and asked several questions to gauge their level of attentiveness to the task.  At the completion of the task, participants wrote once again for fifteen minutes on their three most important goals.  A comparison of the pre- and post-task writing samples, in conjunction with self-reports of attentiveness during the cognitive task, revealed that higher levels of mind-wandering were associated with an increase in the concreteness and specificity of goal descriptions from the pre- to post-task writing samples.  The researchers concluded that spontaneous thought associated with the mind-wandering state increases future-oriented thinking, which in turn helps to clarify and solidify our future goals.  

Neuroimaging scans taken in conjunction with the behavioral study suggested the possibility of a neural correlate to the process: “We conclude that self-generated cognition that arises during the mind-wandering state can allow goals to be refined, and this depends on neural systems anchored in the hippocampus.”  The fact that greater coupling of the hippocampus with other specific neural networks predicted generation of more concrete goals may “represent a mechanism that allows an individual to mentally stimulate possible paths to goal achievement.”  These spontaneous mental simulations can help us refine our strategies for approaching a future goal, allowing us to identify the ones most likely to get us where we want to go.

The next time you’re reading a book and suddenly become aware that your mind has drifted far, far away from the content of the page in front of you, perhaps you should consider letting it wander there for a while before calling it back.  It is, of course, possible that you’re only daydreaming of impossible acts of heroism or remembering last night’s dinner, but it’s also possible that you’re laying down a fresh layer of asphalt on the highway to future success.