“The mind is always trying to wander, every chance it gets,” Schooler said. In his view, the mind has not only the goal of achieving whatever task we’re focused on, but also personal goals simmering outside of our immediate awareness. These are things like making plans for the future, working out everyday problems, and better understanding oneself. Sometimes, one of these goals hijacks our attention. And so our mind wanders.
Brain-scanning evidence links mind-wandering to basic operation of the brain. Malia Mason of Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital and colleagues recently reported that mind-wandering taps into the same circuitry that people use when they’re told to do nothing — when their brains are on “idle.”
Schooler, who’s studying brain-wave activity associated with mind wandering, welcomes what he sees as a surge of interest in the topic. He and others say there’s plenty to learn.
But there’s even a more basic question, he said. Why is the brain wired to wander? What could possibly be good about that?
Living on autopilot
“Mind-wandering is probably more often helpful than harmful,” Kane said. For one thing, the cost is low: despite notable exceptions, life usually doesn’t demand our full attention.
“A lot of human daily life is autopilot,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of what we need to do that we can do without thinking about it, from driving to eating …. We do occasionally miss that turn on the way home, but we get through the day pretty well.”
Given that, a mechanism that encourages us to devote some idle brain capacity to planning and solving problems “seems like a pretty good use of time,” he said.
Schooler is exploring the idea that mind-wandering promotes creativity. “It’s unconstrained, it can go anywhere, which is sort of the perfect situation for creative thought,” he said.
Mason points out that just because the human brain wanders doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a good reason for it. Maybe, she said, the mind wanders simply because it can.
But even she sees an upside.
“I can be stuck in my car in traffic and not go absolutely crazy because I’m not stuck in the here and now,” she said. “I can think about what happened last night. And that’s great.”