* Paul Seli, Evan F. Risko, Daniel Smilek, and Daniel L. Schacter, ‘Mind-Wandering With and Without Intention’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 605-17.
* Michael C. Corballis, The Wandering Mind: What The Brain Does When You’re Not Looking (Chicago, 2015)
I have written about mind-wandering before, and it proved to be one of my favourite topics: literature can offer us representations of the way that the mind wanders, versions of the outcomes (positive and negative), and it may present itself as the product of mind-wandering or like mind-wandering itself: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. I caught up with Corballis’s book a bit belatedly. It’s a very readable survey of lots of ideas about the mind’s more and less useful kinds of wandering. Storytelling, creativity, dreams, hallucinations, and more, are all drawn in to the picture.
For some reason I found the book less thought-provoking than I find pieces like the one above in Trends. Perhaps it’s because books like Corballis’s are written in order to be interesting to people like me, and I am a contrary sort of person. Seli et al. rejoin the fray with a desire to achieve a better understanding of intentional mind-wandering, as opposed to the unintentional kind. They point to recent research suggesting that they are separate things, ‘dissociable’ indeed. They propose mechanisms to help explain and understand the differences.
One problem, it seems, is that the key distinction between ‘on-task’ and ‘mind-wandering’ (which is made in experiments by asking subjects to report this way or that) simply obscures the way that people may be doing it deliberately and for a reason. So, new experiments have been asking them to make the distinction: on task, intentionally off on a wander, unintentionally so. The results were that 34-41% of the time the mind-wandering was intentional. Two kinds of intention are offered (or admitted): people may just not be engaged in their experimental tasks, or they find the tasks uninvolvingly easy, so they can do some extra thinking about the weather or the shopping or the mind-body problem.
There is a local, practical problem, which is that research into mind-wandering sometimes involves boring tasks designed to elicit unintentional distraction. If mind-wandering is something being done deliberately, then researchers need to be careful. It’s also acknowledged that they need to find out how reliable or meaningful such self-reports are, and whether such episodes may include both intentional and unintentional aspects, possibly separable across time (it started off deliberate, but then it took on a momentum of its own). More interesting to me is the possibility that we send our thoughts on detours for relatively substantial reasons: it’s a way of getting somewhere.
As Seli et al. acknowledge, theories of outward attention allow for shifts prompted by intentional searching (‘where’s ?’) and inescapable responses (‘is that my child I can hear calling?’). So we may be able to accept the same with what could be thought of as inward attention. The act of tuning in to the motions of one’s thoughts might be strategic or automatic. The neural evidence might suggest some independent features, it seems, but it’s far from clear.
This essay reminds us that mind-wandering seems in some way to be associated with autobiographical memory, planning ahead, metacognition, and my old friend the , which is linked to dreams, storytelling, and more. Understanding it better might get us further into the ways we solve problems and understand ourselves in relation to the complexities of past, present, and future. We need to be plural with the prepositions of useful thinking: we don’t just think of or at things, or through them. We also think over them, under them, around and across and… well, to be honest, I think it may go beyond the ability of these deictic components of language to capture what mind-wandering is like.
Literary accounts of inspiration often explore this intentional-unintentional dynamic. Poets are sometimes swept up in a frenzy of creation that is beyond their control; sometimes they drift into it. Of course there are also times when the writing is purposeful, occasional, even compelled. And writers don’t always tell the truth about what may be many layers of inspiration. However, their descriptions of the creative process might come together to make an interesting taxonomy of the intentional and unintentional varities of mind-wandering. Medieval dream-visions, for example, figure the creative process as something that comes to the poet in sleep, but they all map out that process in different ways. Their careful thinking about the workings of the mind needs a bit of translating, but it’s not beyond reach.