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.
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. 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.
Mind-wandering appears to be both a stable trait of people and a transient state. Studies have linked performance problems in the laboratory and in daily life. 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. Mind-wandering is also common when drunk through the consumption of alcohol.
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.
Mind-wandering was first discussed by John Antrobus and Jerome Singer in the late 1960s and it has more recently become a growing research topic in cognitive psychology, cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience.
Mind-wandering is studied using thought sampling, or simply asking participants what they are thinking about at any given moment. 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 originally developed by Ian Robertson and his colleagues at Trinity College, Dublin to explore deficits in executive control after lesions to the frontal lobe.
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. 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 suggesting a role in generating spontaneous internal thoughts. One relatively controversial result is that periods of mind wandering are associated with increased activation in both the default and executive system a result that implies that mind-wandering may often be goal oriented.
In addition to neural models, computational models of consciousness based on Bernard Baars' Global Workspace theory 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.
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