Mind wandering tends to be seen in a negative way, but zoning out on purpose can help creative thinking and problems solving.
Now a new study identifies a vital difference between intentional and unintentional mind wandering.
It reveals how intentional mind wandering feels different from accidental mind wandering.
Dr Paul Seli, the study’s first author, said:
“In recent years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of studies examining mind wandering.
The general assumption has been that people’s experiences of mind wandering exclusively reflect their attention unintentionally drifting away from a task.
Based on our everyday experiences, however, it seems that people frequently intentionally mind-wander.”
The study gave people various tasks to do — some of which were easy and others more difficult.
Regularly throughout the study people indicated whether their mind was wandering, intentionally, unintentionally or if they were on-task.
The study’s authors write:
“We suspect that when people are completing an easy task, they may be inclined to deliberately disengage from the task and engage in mind wandering.
This might be the case because easy tasks tend to be rather boring, or because people realize that they can get away with mind wandering without sacrificing performance.
Conversely, when completing a difficult task, people really need to focus on the task in order to perform well, so if they do mind-wander, their mind wandering should be more likely to occur unintentionally.”
And this was exactly the pattern they observed.
The difficult task produced more unintentional mind wandering while the easy task produced more intentional mind wandering.
Dr Seli said:
“These results challenge the common view that all mind wandering is unintentional.
Importantly, this result indicates that intentional and unintentional mind wandering are unique cognitive experiences that sometimes behave differently.
In turn, this suggests that researchers ought to distinguish between these two unique subtypes of mind wandering in future work.”
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Seli et al., 2016).
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