Mind-wandering (sometimes referred to as task unrelated thought) is the experience of thoughts not remaining on a single topic for a long period of time, particularly when people are not engaged in an attention-demanding task. It is the topic of research in the study of attention and consciousness, as it relates to attentional lapses, or digression due to lack of focus on the task in hand.[1][2]

Mind-wandering tends to occur during driving, reading and other activities where vigilance may be low. In these situations, people report having no memory of what happened in the surrounding environment while pre-occupied with their thoughts. This is known as the decoupling hypothesis.[2] Studies using event-related potentials (ERPs) have quantified the extent that mind-wandering reduces the cortical processing of the external environment. When thinking is not focused on the task in hand, the brain processes both task relevant and unrelated sensory information in a less detailed manner.[3][4]

Mind-wandering appears to be both a stable trait of people and a transient state. Studies have linked performance problems in the laboratory[5] and in daily life.[6] Mind-wandering is also intimately linked to states of affect; studies indicate that task unrelated thought is common in states of low or depressed mood.[7][8] Mind-wandering is also common when drunk through the consumption of alcohol.[9]

It is common during mind-wandering to engage in mental time travel—the consideration of personally relevant events from the past and the anticipation of events in the future. Studies have demonstrated a prospective bias to spontaneous thought because individuals tend to engage in more future than past related thoughts during mind-wandering.[10]



Mind-wandering was first discussed by John Antrobus and Jerome Singer in the late 1960s[11] and it has more recently become a growing research topic in cognitive psychology, cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience.[12]

Research methods

Mind-wandering is studied using thought sampling, or simply asking participants what they are thinking about at any given moment.[2][1] Another way in which mind-wandering has been studied is through the use of behavioral indicators of a lapse in external attention. A common technique is to use the sustained attention to response (SART) task[5] originally developed by Ian Robertson and his colleagues at Trinity College, Dublin to explore deficits in executive control after lesions to the frontal lobe.[13]


Mind-wandering is important in understanding how the brain produces what William James called the train of thought and the stream of consciousness. This aspect of mind-wandering research is focused on understanding how the brain generates the spontaneous and relatively unconstrained thoughts that are experienced when the mind wanders.[14][15] One candidate neural mechanism for generating this aspect of experience is a network of regions in the frontal and parietal cortex known as the default network. This network of regions is highly active even when subjects are resting with their eyes closed[16] suggesting a role in generating spontaneous internal thoughts.[14][17] One relatively controversial result is that periods of mind wandering are associated with increased activation in both the default and executive system[15] a result that implies that mind-wandering may often be goal oriented.[1][10]

In addition to neural models, computational models of consciousness based on Bernard Baars' Global Workspace theory[18][19] suggest that mind-wandering, or "spontaneous thought" may involve competition between internally and externally generated activities attempting to gain access to a limited capacity central network.[20]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Smallwood, J. & Schooler, J.W. (2006). The Restless Mind. Psychological Bulletin, 132(6), 946-958.
  2. ^ a b c Smallwood, J., Obonsawin, M.C., & Heim, D. (2003) Task Unrelated Thought: the role of distributed processing. Consciousness and Cognition. 12(2), 169-189.
  3. ^ Smallwood, J., Beech, E.M., Schooler, J.W. & Handy, T.C. Going AWOL in the brain – mind wandering reduces cortical analysis of the task environment. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 20(3), 458-469.
  4. ^ Kam, J.W.Y., Dao, E., Farley, J., Fitzpatrick, K., Smallwood, J., Schooler, J.W., & Handy, T.C. (2010). Slow fluctuations in attentional control of sensory cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 0(0), 1-11.
  5. ^ a b Smallwood, J., Davies, J. B., Heim, D., Finnigan, F., Sudberry, M.V., O'Connor, R.C. & Obonsawain, M.C. (2004). Subjective experience and the attentional lapse. Task engagement and disengagement during sustained attention. Consciousness and Cognition, 13(4), 657-690.
  6. ^ McVay J.C., Kane M.J., Kwapil T.R. (2009). Tracking the train of thought from the laboratory into everyday life: an experience-sampling study of mind wandering across controlled and ecological contexts. Psychon Bull Rev. 16(5):857-63. PMID 19815789
  7. ^ Smallwood, J., Fitzgerald, A., Miles, L., & Phillips, L. (2009). Shifting moods, wandering minds: negative moods lead the mind to wander, Emotion. 9(2), 271-276.
  8. ^ Smallwood, J., O'Connor, R.C., Sudberry, M.V. & Obonsawin, M.C. (2007). Mind wandering & Dysphoria. Cognition & Emotion, 21(4), 816-842.
  9. ^ Finnigan, F., Schulze, D. & Smallwood, J. (2007). Alcohol and the wandering mind – a new direction in the study of attentional lapses. International Journal of Disability and Human Development, 6(2), 189–199.
  10. ^ a b Smallwood, J., Nind, L. & O'Connor, R.C. (2009) When is your head at? An exploration of the factors associated with the temporal focus of the wandering mind. Consciousness & Cognition. 18(1), 118-125.
  11. ^ Antrobus J.S., Singer, J.L., Goldstein, S. and Fortgang, M. (1970). Mind-wandering and cognitive structure. Transactions of the New York Academy of Science 32(2):242-252. PMID 5265228
  12. ^ Smallwood J, Riby L, Heim D, Davies J.B. (2006). Encoding during the attentional lapse: accuracy of encoding during the semantic sustained attention to response task. Consciousness and Cognition 15(1):218-231. PMID 16115782
  13. ^ Robertson, I.H., Manly, T., Andrade, J., Baddeley, B.T. and Yiend, J. (1997). 'Oops!': performance correlates of everyday attentional failures in traumatic brain injured and normal subjects. Neuropsychologia, 35(6):747-758. PMID 9204482
  14. ^ a b Mason, M.F., Norton, M.I., Van Horn, J.D., Wegner, D.M., Grafton, S.T., Macrae, C.N. (2007). Wandering minds: the default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science 315(5810):393-395. 17234951
  15. ^ a b Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J. Smith, R. & Schooler, J.W. (2009). Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106(21), 8719-24.
  16. ^ Gusnard, D.A. & Raichle, M.E. (2001). Searching for a baseline: functional imaging and the resting human brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2(10):685-694. doi:10.1038/35094500 PMID 11584306
  17. ^ Bar, M., Aminoff, E., Mason, M., Fenske, M. (2007). The units of thought. Hippocampus. 17(6):420-428. PMID 17455334
  18. ^ Baars, Bernard (1988), A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press)
  19. ^ Baars, Bernard (1997), In the Theater of Consciousness (New York, NY: Oxford University Press)
  20. ^ Dehaene, S. & Changeux, J.-P. (2005). Ongoing spontaneous activity controls access to consciousness: A neuronal model for inattentional blindness. PLoS Biology, 3(5):e141. PMID 15819609

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