Letting your mind wander while you’re meant to be working on a task doesn’t sound like a particularly good idea. Indeed, psychologists have viewed mind-wandering in this context as a failing — specifically, a failure of executive control to maintain focus. Evidence that mind-wandering worsens performance on tasks that tap into working memory, for example, supports this idea. However, the full picture is not so neat…
Though older adults generally have poorer executive control than younger people, they tend to report less mind wandering. And some studies that required young adults to switch between various tasks have found that mind-wandering made no difference to their performance. This is “perplexing”, note the authors of a new paper in Consciousness and Cognition — at least in the context of traditional theories. But Yi-Sheng Wong at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and colleagues report findings that support an alternative idea: that people who have a tendency to mind-wander enjoy greater “cognitive flexibility” — that is, they can shift more easily from one type of cognitive challenge to another.
The team studied 79 undergraduate students, who were repeatedly shown a circle or a triangle on a screen. The shape was either large or small, and red or blue. In the first set of trials, the participants were told which aspect of the image — its shape, colour or size — they were to report on, via a keyboard, as quickly and accurately as possible. Sometimes this would be the same as the previous trial, but sometimes it would change so they were focusing on colour in one trial, say, and size the next. In the second, voluntary-switch set of trials, the participants could choose if and when they wanted to change — to start responding to colour instead of shape, for example. After they had finished both sets of trials, they completed questionnaires that assessed mind-wandering, among other things.
The team found that participants who reported having a relatively high tendency to spontaneously mind wander in daily life also rated themselves as having generally poorer attentional control. They were also more likely to have thought about things other than the appearance of the shapes while doing the experiment. However, when the team looked at the participants’ reaction times, this group didn’t do any worse on the voluntary-switch set of trials, and actually did better on trials where they were forced to suddenly change from reporting on one aspect of the image to another.
The team proposes that those who mind-wandered more put themselves in a “set-switching” mode, and this allowed them to respond better to shifts in task instructions. Their mind-wandering may, then, have enabled greater cognitive flexibility. According to this view, depending on the nature of the task, mind-wandering may indeed sometimes carry costs, but at other times, it can in fact be helpful.
It’s worth stressing that this study had various limitations, not least that it was done on young, overwhelmingly female participants in a WEIRD context, which clearly restricts the generalisability of the results. Clearly, more work is needed to explore these ideas. But, the team concludes, this “first step towards highlighting the relevance of cognitive flexibility in mind wandering may help researchers towards gaining a more nuanced and holistic understanding of past findings.”
It could also represent a useful step towards a better understanding of the causes and impacts of mind wandering generally. Alongside the data on variations with age, some patient groups report heightened levels of mind-wandering (including people with ADHD), while others report much less (people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, for example.) A better understanding of mind-wandering could help with understanding aspects of these conditions, as well as the experiences of healthy people in everyday life.
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