“Before experimenting, isn’t it appropriate to know as exactly as possible on what one is going to experiment?” -- Sartre

Rarely do I read a scientific paper that overwhelms me with so much excitement, awe, and reverence. Well, a new paper in Psychological Science has really got me revved up, and I am bursting to share their findings with you!

Most research on mind-wandering and daydreaming draws on either two methods: strict, laboratory conditions that ask people to complete boring, cognitive tasks and retrospective surveys that ask people to recall how often they daydream in daily life. It has been rather difficult to compare these results to each other; laboratory tasks aren't representative of how we normally go about our day, and surveys are prone to memory distortion.

In this new, exciting study, Michael Kane and colleagues directly compared laboratory mind-wandering with real-life mind wandering within the same person, and used an important methodology called "experience-sampling" that allows the researcher to capture people's ongoing stream of consciousness. For 7 days, 8 times a day, the researchers randomly asked 274 undergraduates at North Carolina at Greensboro whether they were mind-wandering and the quality of their daydreams. They also asked them to engage in a range of tasks in the laboratory that assessed their rates of mind-wandering, the contents of their off-task thoughts, and their "executive functioning" (a set of skills that helps keep things in memory despite distractions and focus on the relevant details). What did they find?

First off, it turns out that undergraduates mind-wander about 30% of the time, and unsurprisingly, they tend to mind-wander more under boring laboratory conditions than in their everyday lives. Most of the content during mind-wandering was related to "daydreams/fantasy", "worries/problems", "stuff to do", and "visual/auditory surrounding". Most mind-wandering happened with some awareness ("zoning out"), and the focus tended to be on everyday plans and goals. With all that said, there was quite a range of mind-wandering rates, with one student mind-wandering only 2% of the time, and another student mind-wandering 97% of the time! The only traits that predicted mind-wandering rates in the laboratory were executive functioning and neuroticism. In other words, those whose minds wandered less in the laboratory had a better ability to control their attention and also tended to be less anxious and ruminative.

Daydreaming During the Day

When looking at mind-wandering in daily life, however, a very different story was revealed. In the real world, executive functioning skills and even mind-wandering rate in the laboratory did not predict frequency of mind-wandering. What's more, those with poor executive functioning were not more likely to zone out without awareness, to daydream, to worry, to think about their unfulfilled goals and plans, or to be distracted by their immediate environment. There was simply no difference between high and low executive functioning on these factors.

There was one specific effect relating to executive functioning, though: As people tried harder than usual to concentrate, those with better executive functioning did tend to be more on-task. However, when not trying to concentrate, those with better executive functioning actually mind-wandered more than those with poorer attentional control! These results suggest that in everyday life, the effect of executive functioning on mind-wandering is limited to contexts in which we are actively attempting to concentrate on a task.

The best predictor of overall daily mind-wandering rate was openness experience-- reflecting tendencies toward playful and creative fantasy-- and those scoring high in openness to experience also reported more fantastical-daydream content when mind-wandering in daily life. Interestingly, while neuroticism was predictive of the tendency to mind-wander under laboratory conditions, neuroticism was uncorrelated with frequency of mind-wandering in daily life (neuroticism was related to worry-based content during mind-wandering, however).

Overall, on-task thoughts in the real world were rated as more pleasant and clear than off-task thoughts, and less strange, suspicious, racing, and uncontrollable. This is consistent with the pleasurable nature of the flow experience (complete, rapt absorption in a meaningful task). Also, personality differences predicted the unique flavor of present-moment thought: those scoring higher in openness to experience reported engaging in less boring activities in the moment; those scoring higher in neuroticism reported feeling less happy, more confused, irritable, anxious, tired, and sad, and they described their activities and contexts as more boring, more stressful, less liked, and less positive; those scoring higher in conscientiousness reported being more successful in their current activity; and those scoring higher in agreeableness reported feeling more happy and positive, and finally, extraverts reported feeling more happy (but also more confused!) in the moment.

Why am I so darn exited about these findings?!

OK, these findings are definitely interesting, but why am I like freaking out over here? Please allow me to nerd out for a second (if I can't do it at Scientific American, where can I do it?) and explicitly tell you 3 reasons why I find these findings so exciting:

  1. These findings help to reduce the stigma and discrimination of daydreamers. In my view, there is a difference between "mind-wandering" and "daydreaming". I believe that the sort of phenomenon that is captured in the sterile laboratory or educational classroom more captures mind-wandering, which I would define as what the mind does when it wanders away from an unmotivated task demand. In contrast, I believe what happens in our daily lives is more akin to "daydreaming", which is simply spontaneous thought. Daydreaming can be detrimental to the task at hand, but it can also be the greatest source of our creativity, compassion, and meaning in life. Indeed, the fact that the best predictor of daydreaming in daily life was openness to experience (not neuroticism) has big implications in light of the research showing that openness to experience the single best predictor of creative achievement, and the neurotic brain is different from the creative brain.
  2. These findings reinforce the notion that mindfulness is not the opposite of mind-wanderingThere's this misconception that you are either a really flighty airhead, or are a smart, intelligent person with the ability to think logically and accurately. Well, these findings suggest that people who have the ability to control their attention actually daydream more in everyday life when not actively trying to pay attention! It would appear that training both your executive attention muscle and your frequency of positive-constructive daydreaming  would be optimal, especially in terms of increased creativity.
  3. These findings illustrate why it's so important to observe people as they spontaneously go about their lives instead of relying on laboratory tests of human potential. The truth is, tests of executive functioning are very strongly correlated with IQ, and these tests are so often used as a diagnosis of learning disabilities and mental disorders. However, according to my Theory of Personal Intelligence, we can't truly know what a person is capable of achieving until we, at the very least, see them engaged in a personally meaningful activity over a long period of time. What's more, the sort of personally-relevant cognition that is lambasted in the classroom or laboratory is precisely what leads to the highest levels of creativity in the real world. For instance, the reduced executive functioning ability of those with ADHD does make it more difficult to concentrate in the laboratory (true!), but it also makes it more likely that they will daydream in daily life. Dasha Zabelina and colleagues have shown how various laboratory tests of attention and cognition don't predict real-world creative achievement. So let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater; let's retain the merits of positive-constructive daydreaming while also helping people train their ability to concentrate when they want to or need to (mindfulness is a great start).
  4. This research takes phenomenology seriously. Quantitative methods are useful, but are limited in understanding the contents of consciousness. Techniques such as experience sampling technique that allows us to further plumb the depths and content of consciousness will help us better understand the human condition. 

I'll stop there for now, before I overstay my welcome (I could nerd out on this for days and days). In closing, though, I want to emphasize just how much context matters when it comes to mind-wandering and daydreaming. As two prominent researchers so eloquently put it, "not all minds that wander are lost".*



© 2017 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

* At least outside the laboratory or classroom.

P.S.: This paper is a great example of how good science is done. Kane and colleagues openly mention that their current findings contradict some of their earlier findings. Much respect!