Michael Corballis Ph.D.

The Recursive Mind

Let Your Mind Wander

... and find your creative self

Posted May 28, 2015

Mind wandering has something of a bum rap.

We chide our children for not paying attention in class, or board members who drift away from the agenda. Mind wandering, we’re told, even makes us unhappy. In a large-scale survey conducted over 83 different countries, people were asked at random moments during their waking hours what they were doing. They were doing lots of things—housework, office work, washing dishes, making love. But in nearly half of the cases they were thinking about something other than what they were supposed to be doing. Asked to rate their happiness, they were less happy on average when their minds were wandering than when they were on task. The article describing this work was headed “The wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

Yet it seems that our minds wander, whether we like it or not, around half the time. Some of my readers may have lost me already.

We are also currently in the grip of a cult of mindfulness, a meditation technique in which we are urged to focus exclusively on the present, and on our own bodies. One version is to focus on the incoming and outgoing breath, another is to train one’s thoughts on the pressure of the seat on one’s buttocks (a bum rap of a different kind). Mindfulness is said to relieve stress and help us find internal harmony.

But mind wandering is essentially the opposite of mindfulness, since it takes us away from the present and allows us to mentally relive the past or imagine the future. We can even escape real time altogether, as in the “once upon a time” of children’s stories. We also escape our own bodies, imagining ourselves in the predicaments of others, empathizing with what our children are doing, second-guessing the pitcher or the goal shoot as he or she prepares to strike. Indeed, we humans seem addicted to stories that take us away from our current lives and into make-believe—novels, plays, movies, soap operas, computer games, even gossip. Our restless, loquacious species has been described as Homo narrans, the story-teller.

Brain imaging has shown that mind wandering activates a surprisingly large network in the brain, especially infiltrating those areas not directly concerned with processing incoming information or delivering action. The brain as a whole is very nearly as active, and indeed activated more widely, when the mind is wandering than when it is engaged. This was initially not only a surprise but also an embarrassment to neuroscience, since it was often difficult to separate focused activity from the meanderings. Increasingly, though, mind wandering is seen to be an important component of our everyday lives.

The wandering mind is also the creative mind.

Creativity,” said Steve Jobs, “is just connecting things.” Wandering about the world is a way to discover connections that one would not otherwise see. Mind wandering may not have the sense of reality that physical wandering offers, but it is instant—and cheap. We can immediately transport ourselves to Paris, a favorite restaurant, the surface of the moon. And of course we can escape reality and imagine fantasy worlds of ogres and princesses, or murderers and lovers.

Mind wandering also adds randomness, the chance component that throws up unexpected images and connections. The fantastical nature of mind wandering is exaggerated precise when sensory input is cut off. People in isolation chambers, or alone at sea, often experience bizarre hallucinations. “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / upon the slimy sea,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Even our nightly dreams may owe their bizarre nature largely to the fact that sensory input is cut off during sleep.

So what of unhappiness? Perhaps it’s just part of the deal of life. We may well feel unhappy while brooding over some past indiscretion, or worrying about a forthcoming ordeal, but these anxious wanderings help us deal with the actual future. Unhappiness may be a precursor to future happiness.

To people who worry that their minds wander at board meetings, I say go ahead and exploit it. Studies have shown that we have our most creative thoughts against a background that engages some attention, but is not too demanding. The board meeting may be the perfect setting.

For more, see my book The Wandering Mind (Chicago, 2015)