Are you one of those many people who mind seems to wander from time to time? Do you have stray thoughts? Do you daydream? Well take hope! In a New York Times article, author John Tierney writes that researchers have been analyzing these behaviors, and they’ve found daydreaming to be remarkably common¬ and often quite useful. “A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals”, he writes. Tierney notes that sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems.
Mind wandering, as psychologists define it, is a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into “task-unrelated thoughts,” that’s mind wandering.
During waking hours, people’s minds seem to wander about 30 percent of the time, according to estimates by psychologists who have interrupted people throughout the day to ask what they’re thinking. If you’re driving down a straight, empty highway, your mind might be wandering three-quarters of the time, according to two of the leading researchers, Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“People assume mind wandering is a bad thing, but if we couldn’t do it during a boring task, life would be horrible,” Dr. Smallwood says. “Imagine if you couldn’t escape mentally from a traffic jam.”
Where exactly does the mind go during those moments? By observing people at rest during brain scans, neuroscientists have identified a “default network” that is active when people’s minds are especially free to wander. When people do take up a task, the brain’s executive network lights up to issue commands, and the default network is often suppressed.
To encourage the creative process, researchers say, it may help if you go jogging, take a walk, do some knitting or just sit around doodling, because relatively undemanding tasks seem to free your mind to wander productively. But you also want to be able to catch yourself at the Eureka moment.
“For creativity you need your mind to wander,” Dr. Schooler says, “but you also need to be able to notice that you’re mind wandering and catch the idea when you have it. If Archimedes had come up with a solution in the bathtub but didn’t notice he’d had the idea, what good would it have done him?”