A Closer Look at Mind Wandering

You’re sitting in your intro history class, diligently taking notes on the Battle of Yorktown, but then you pause—just for a second—to think about that paper due next Tuesday, and next thing you know you’re wondering about your weekend plans and trying to remember if you called your mom earlier today. We’ve all been there. Mind wandering is a common experience for students, but it’s not as simple as it may seem. Research published by Paul Seli—a postdoc at Harvard—and his colleagues at Harvard and the University of Waterloo highlights the differences between intentional mind wandering and unintentional mind wandering.

But wait—what actually counts as mind wandering? According to Seli, “It seems most appropriate to treat mind wandering as a natural category that consists of many different varieties that have overlapping features. In this sense, ‘mind wandering’ does not refer to a single type of thought...but is instead a family of related cognitive experiences.”

By Wikimedia Commons

As a graduate student, Seli began thinking about mind wandering as having distinct nuances. His team’s findings show that people experience intentional mind wandering more frequently when working on easy tasks and unintentional mind wandering more when working on harder tasks.

“If a task is really easy, then people can afford to intentionally disengage from it in the service of mind wandering—which would allow them to plan future events, think creatively, and engage in other beneficial types of thought,” Seli wrote in an email.

By contrast, people engaging in a difficult task risk inhibiting their own performance if they mind wander.

“In these situations, people are more likely to try to actively focus their attention on the task, and when their control system fails, they experience unintentional mind wandering,” Seli wrote.

As students, we experience mind wandering more frequently than we might like to admit, so it’s important to consider that it has both benefits and drawbacks depending on context.

“If you are in a context in which you can afford to mind-wander without having your performance suffer, then by all means, mind-wander away, as this activity can be quite functional. However, in contexts such as the classroom, in which inattention will likely result in poorer learning, mind wandering can certainly be detrimental,” Seli added.

Food for thought as the fall semester looms and we prepare to return to the activities that might, you know, occasionally induce some innocent mind wandering.

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