Deemed as one of the most important mental processes, attention is an essential function in our day-to-day lives. However, the human mind is always flitting around from one thing to another, and it can find retaining focus at everything that goes on during the day challenging. In other words, we all have, at any moment in time, had a wandering mind, or thoughts unrelated to the task at hand. It involves decoupling of our thoughts from whatever we are doing at the time. In fact, the ubiquity of mind wandering has been found to be surprisingly high in a study done in 2010 by Matt Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert at Harvard. They found that 46.9% of 2250 adults in the U.S. agreed to have been thinking about something other than what they were currently doing. In addition to that, people reported that their minds wandered at least 30% of the times for every activity. These two researchers also found mind wandering to be associated with negative mood and unhappiness. According to them, people were happier when they focused on the present moment rather than when their minds were wandering. This is true irrespective of the kind of activity the person was engaged in. Together with this, there have also been other research studies that have documented the negative implications of mind wandering during tasks that require attention and focus. And this is understandable, because mind wandering leads to an attentional lapse, which can be problematic during tasks that require a person to be attentive, like driving or attending a lecture.
But, is that the only conclusion about mind wandering that can be drawn? That it is a form of cognitive failure which results in unwanted outcomes, such as accidents on the road and poor performance in tests? Apparently not. Even though mind wandering is often times cast in a bad light due to the lapse in attention it causes, it is more than just passive daydreaming.
There have been a number of studies that disagree with the thesis that mind wandering is nothing but a distraction. These studies have found that having a drifting mind is not as bad as it seems. In fact, in 2013 some researchers found results that were contradictory to what Killingsworth and Gilbert found in 2010 with respect to mind wandering and mood. The association between mind wandering and mood was more complex than what was previously thought. These researchers provided their participants with smartphones, which they were supposed to carry around during the study, and the participants were signalled on a regular basis via their smartphones. They were asked whether their mind wandered, and how they were feeling. They concluded that episodes of mind wandering were associated with preceding sadness. In other words, if you are in an unhappy mood, it could lead to unhappy mind wandering, but mind wandering itself would not result in a negative mood.
Other studies found that there are certain unexpected upsides to mind wandering. For example, in a study done in 2012, researchers linked mind wandering to creative problem solving. When the task at hand is an undemanding one, as compared to a demanding task with no breaks, our minds tend to stray, leading to creative ideas being formed. A wandering mind tends to assemble and connect information in new and different ways without the person even realizing it. This is much like Archimedes’ discovery of the principle of displacement- the ‘eureka’ moment had while engaging in a seemingly mundane and undemanding activity of relaxing in the bath. Similarly, history has presented us with many examples which show that creative ideas manifest out of the blue, indicating that although mind wandering does not necessarily make someone more creative, it is strongly connected to creative inspiration.
In addition to creative thinking, in 2016 another group of researchers found that the tendency to consider the future during mind wandering is associated with development of concrete personal goals, because it allows the mind to rehearse all the different ways in which future goals can go right or wrong, and anticipate future problems and outcomes. During the same year other researchers also found that although mind wandering affects primary task performance, it reduces mind numbing that occurs due to a repetitive task. It provides a mental break from the fatigue caused by a repetitive task, and can strengthen our ability to focus later. Even for jobs that are attentionally demanding and require focus- like surgeons- it can be refreshing to take a break and not think about work for a while.
All of this is not to say that mind wandering is better than being focused. Of course, being lost in thought while driving, or thinking about what you had for dinner while operating heavy machinery can lead to undesirable consequences. But if you have reached a mental impasse while writing a piece of prose, or you are doing a tedious and repetitive task or contemplating about your future, then letting your mind disengage from the world around you could be fruitful.