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Mind Wandering: A New Personal Intelligence Perspective

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Once accused of being absent-minded, the founder of American Psychology, William James, quipped that he was really just present-minded to his own thoughts.

Most recent studies depict mind wandering as a costly cognitive failure with relatively few benefits (Mooneyham and Schooler, 2013). This perspective makes sense when mind wandering is observed by a third party and when costs are measured against externally imposed standards such as speed or accuracy of processing, reading fluency or comprehension, sustained attention, and other external metrics.

There is, however, another way of looking at mind wandering, a personal perspective, if you will. For the individual, mind wandering offers the possibility of very real, personal reward, some immediate, some more distant.

These rewards include self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion (Singer and Schonbar, 1961; Singer, 1964b; Singer, 1966, 1974, 1975, 1993, 2009; Wang et al., 2009; Baars, 2010; Baird et al., 2011, 2012; Kaufman and Singer, 2011; Stawarczyk et al., 2011; Immordino-Yang et al., 2012; Kaufman, 2013).

From this personal perspective, it is much easier to understand why people are drawn to mind wandering and willing to invest nearly 50% of their waking hours engaged in it.

We mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event.

Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp, is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us finally to understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.

Some recent studies (Baird et al., 2011, 2012; Smallwood et al., 2011b; Immordino-Yang etal., 2012) have provided glimpses of how mind wandering or “constructive, internal reflection” (Immordino-Yangetal.,2012) might benefit the individual, but we are just beginning to scratch the surface. To gain a fuller understanding of the benefits of positive constructive daydreaming we need to apply tools and metrics (as in Klinger et al., 1980; Hoelscher et al., 1981; Nikles et al., 1998; Cox and Klinger, 2011; Klinger and Cox, 2011) that enable us identify the personally meaningful goals, aspirations, and dreams of individuals and determine how mind wandering supports or undermines those goals. Given the highly personal nature of mind wandering, we need a new focus and new metrics.

Personal Intelligence

Intelligence theories provide an interesting parallel. Traditional theories of intelligence emphasize cognitive control, deliberate planning, and decontextualized problem solving as the essence of human intelligence (Kaufman, 2011). This is largely due to the purpose of the first intelligence test: to identify students in need of alternative education. Because intelligence tests were designed to predict school grades, the tests were intentionally designed to measure the ability to profit from explicit instruction, concentrate on an external goal, and engage in abstract reasoning. Therefore it should come as no surprise that IQ test performance is strongly associated with activation of the executive attention brain network (e.g., Jung and Haier, 2007; Barbey et al., 2012):

Executive Attention Network

While the cognitive functions measured on traditional metrics of intelligence are undoubtedly important contributors to intellectual functioning, they are mostly decontextualized. Rarely are the test takers allowed to dip into their inner stream of consciousness and produce an original response that incorporates self-relevant information.

To help correct this imbalance in the literature, I recently proposed the Theory of Personal Intelligence. According to the theory, intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and ability over an extended period of time in pursuit of personal goals (Kaufman, 2013). The emphasis is adaptation to task demands that are relevant to attaining one’s personal goals, not just adaptation to the external goals dictated by educators and experimental psychologists.

Therefore, the theory takes into account an individual’s personal goals, and considers both controlled forms of cognition (e.g., working memory, attentional focus, etc.) and spontaneous forms of cognition (e.g., intuition, affect, insight, implicit learning, latent inhibition, and the spontaneous triggering of episodic memories and declarative knowledge) are important potential contributors to that personal adaptation.

This broadened conceptualization of human intelligence is in line with the plethora of research on the adaptive value of positive constructive daydreaming (see Jerome L. Singer’s seminal research– e.g., Singer, 1964b, 1966, 1974, 1975, 2009). When daydreaming, the contents of consciousness tend to be focused on upcoming personally meaningful events, indicating that they may play a role in autobiographical planning (Smallwood et al., 2009b; Morsella et al., 2010). In particular, Klinger (1999) showed that people’s daydreams and night dreams reflect “current concerns” ranging from constant thought of incomplete tasks to unresolved desires, ranging from sexual and social strivings to altruistic or revenge urges and the panoply of human motivations.

This deeply personal conceptualization of intelligence is also in line with the latest research in cognitive neuroscience. D’Argembeau et al. (2010) found that imagining personal future events elicited stronger activation in two key hubs of the default mode network– the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) – compared to imagining non-personal future events.

Default Mode Network

The researchers suggest that these brain areas support a collection of mental processes that evaluate, code, and contextualize the relevance of mental representations with regard to personal goals. Since traditional measures of intelligence do not allow individuals to imagine personal future events, or connect the test information to their large store-house of episodic memories, functioning of these key regions of the default mode network are ignored in the assessment of intellectual functioning.

Another key implication is that sometimes behavior that appears “unintelligent” measured by external standards may actually be quite intelligent as judged by its relevance to achieving personally meaningful goals. Importantly, these different ways of being “smart” can conflict with each other.

According to the neural global workspace theory of consciousness, different streams of consciousness compete for access to a global conscious workspace (Baars, 1993). This may explain why the executive attention network and the default mode network tend to be anticorrelated (Fox et al., 2005). Daily life often demands that we choose one information stream or the other. For instance, in a decontextualized educational context, or in a cognitive psychology experiment, the ability to concentrate on a task requires silencing the inner chatter. Vice versa, when we would like to dip into our inner stream of consciousness, we must block out our external percepts (Dehaene and Changeux, 2005; Smallwood et al., 2011b; Kam et al., 2013).

However, as Kam et al. (2013) point out, when the executive attention network works in concert with the default mode network to sustain an inner train of thought, selective attention processes are not absent – they just are turned inward to select the most relevant associations and ideas that emerge from episodic memory. This has important implications, because traditional views of selective attention erroneously assume that the main function of the executive attention network is to select relevant stimuli from the external environment for deliberate, conscious processing.

However, these traditional models miss a key feature of human cognition: when working in cooperation with the default mode network, the executive attention network is equally equipped to select relevant episodic associations that can help keep an inner stream of thought both positive and constructive.

This post was excerpted from the recent Frontiers in Psychology article, “Ode to positive constructive daydreaming,” co-authored with Rebecca L. McMillan, and with Jerome L. Singer as an honorary co-author. I should note that Rebecca McMillan is lead author on the paper, and contributed substantially to the writing and ideas, including those excerpted here.

image credits #2 and #3: George Doutsiopoulos

Scott Barry Kaufman About the Author: Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rosabw 2:17 pm 09/25/2013

    I am so lucky to have a clue what you are talking about. That sounds silly, but at age 3 the term “visionary” came to me in regard to my son, who has a label. I have been working on this singular case study for about 15 years. The present science disregards anything but rote memorization. Germinal thought comes from within, not without. Perhaps we can quit spinning in the same circles, now…

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  2. 2. Douglas Eby 4:15 pm 09/25/2013

    Mary-Elaine Jacobsen notes in her book “The Gifted Adult” “It empowers us to imagine and wander about in creative thought without getting lost or straying too far from the intended goal. This is why creative producers seem so enigmatic. The system that keeps the work moving forward and organized on the inside is invisible in the midst of a desk that looks as though a tornado struck it.” – From article “Tolerating Chaos to Create” http://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2012/06/tolerating-chaos-to-create/

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  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:22 am 09/26/2013

    Mind wandering is just a form of imagination. Lack of imagination? Perhaps it is good if you want your child to become manual worker. Or for a burned out teacher who want to have as little contact with pupils as possible.

    Mind wandering is important for discovering new options and new connexions. I agree, though, that it is better to learn steering your thoughts into more practical applications. I see it as a hunting hawk – you rise high into abstract thoughts, then spot where is a practical use of your broad perspective, and dive there.

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  4. 4. UncleBob 2:45 pm 09/27/2013

    It’s no wonder that Albert Einstein, the embodiment of great “thought experiments” said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Clearly scientific (and other) advances soar on the wings of imagination.

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  5. 5. DonaldS 2:55 pm 09/27/2013

    There is, however, a time and place for everything.

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