Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

The Costs and Benefits of Mind-Wandering: A Review

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

The Costs and Benefits of Mind-Wandering: A Review

Article excerpt

Substantial evidence suggests that mind-wandering typically occurs at a significant cost to performance. Mind-wandering-related deficits in performance have been observed in many contexts, most notably reading, tests of sustained attention, and tests of aptitude. Mind-wandering has been shown to negatively impact reading comprehension and model building, impair the ability to withhold automatized responses, and disrupt performance on tests of working memory and intelligence. These empirically identified costs of mind-wandering have led to the suggestion that mind-wandering may represent a pure failure of cognitive control and thus pose little benefit. However, emerging evidence suggests that the role of mind-wandering is not entirely pernicious. Recent studies have shown that mind-wandering may play a crucial role in both autobiographical planning and creative problem solving, thus providing at least two possible adaptive functions of the phenomenon. This article reviews these observed costs and possible functions of mind-wandering and identifies important avenues of future inquiry.

Keywords: mind-wandering, reading, attention, creativity, autobiographical planning, mindfulness

Mind-wandering is one of the most ubiquitous of all mental activities. Estimates suggest that the tendency for the mind to stray from the here and now in favor of thoughts unrelated to current external events constitutes as much as 50% of our waking hours (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010; Klinger, 1999). Notably, these incessant mental meanderings come at quite a cost, significantly disrupting performance on a great range of activities ranging from the banal (e.g., simple vigilance tasks; Allan Cheyne et al., 2009; McVay & Kane, 2009; Smallwood et al., 2004) to the most demanding (performance on the SAT; Mrazek et al., 2012). This is because most of our activities occur in interaction with the external environment, and mind-wandering is characterized specifically by a decoupling of attention from an immediate task context toward unrelated concerns (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006; Schooler et al., 2011). But what are these detriments and how have they been measured empirically? One aim of this article will be to review the costs that are associated with mind-wandering by examining the effects of mind-wandering as they have been measured with regard to both performance and mood. The negative impact of mindwandering has been observed primarily within several main types of performance: reading, sustained attention, and working memory and intelligence testing. Thus, we will examine mind-wandering's effects within each of these settings. Additionally, performance measures alone do not encapsulate the negative aspects of mindwandering, and as such we will also examine the relationship between mind-wandering and mood (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2011; McVay, Kane, & Kwapil, 2009).

Because it is intuitively and empirically clear that mindwandering occurs at some cost (McVay, Kane, & Kwapil, 2009; Reichle, Reineberg, & Schooler, 2010; Allan Cheyne et al., 2009; Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler, 2008; Smallwood et al., 2008; Smallwood et al, 2004), this has led to the notion that mind-wandering may be principally described as a failure of cognitive control (McVay & Kane, 2010). Although this may be true to some extent, the prevalence of this phenomenon in our daily lives suggests that it may not be solely erroneous to mind-wander, that mind-wandering may have some benefit for our species (Schooler et al., 2011; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). We will therefore also review research that has pointed toward the possible utility of mind-wandering, focusing on its role in future thinking/ planning and creativity.

Costs of Mind-Wandering1


Perhaps the situation in which the disruptive effects of mindwandering have been most thoroughly explored is that of reading (Schooler, Reichle, & Halpern, 2004; Smallwood, McSpadden, & Schooler, 2008; Reichle, Reineberg, & Schooler, 2010; Smilek, Carriere, & Cheyne, 2010; Franklin, Smallwood, & Schooler, 2011; Smallwood, 2011). …

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