We tend to hold a wandering mind as a silly, if not bad thing, long-associated with creative types: Thales, the pre-Socratic philosopher, is said to have to been “so eager to know what was going on in heaven that he could not see what was before his feet” and had a habit of falling into wells. Any super thinky people you know have probably done the same.
This post originally appeared on Fast Company.
Are your mental meanderings a must-have feature of your cranial life or a bug in your skull system? Peter Killeen, the psychologist who explained to us the neurophysiological step-by-step to mental wandering, asked as much in a recent paper.
If My Mind Is Wandering, Am I Losing It?
Meandering has maladaptive connotations. A widely cited study by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that folks are “less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing.” For instance, if you’re commuting to work, you’ll feel better if you’re focused on the slog at hand rather than letting your mind get lost.
But new research shows that wandering can also be adaptive to our hyper-busy, hyper-social lives because, as the study says, “not all minds that wander are lost: the importance of a balanced perspective on the mind-wandering state.” The paper, authored by Jonathan Smallwood of the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany, and Jessica Andrews-Hanna of the The Institute of Cognitive Science, University of Colorado combines the assembled knowledge on mental wandering.
They found that yes, mental wandering—which they term as the much more stately self-generated thought—may lead to negative experiences, but that depends on the content of the thought. As in, if your mind begins to wander in the form of depressive ruminations—thinking of the ways that fate has vexed, hexed, and jilted you—then the user experience of your commute is probably going to get worse.
But wandering need not be grump-inducingly destructive; if you’re good at it, self-generated thought can be life-affirmingly constructive. Here’s how:
A Wandering Mind Helps Us Project Our Past and Future Selves
Evolutionary psychologists have found that hindsight and foresight—what you might call mental time travel—are unique to humans. Looking back on our experiences allows us to integrate them into our present time, allowing us to act with a little more wisdom. Additionally, self-generated thought allows us to consolidate our memories into a sense of self.
A Wandering Mind Helps Us Make Successful Long-Term Plans
This is a pretty awesome survival technique: if you can anticipate what the future will be like, you can align your present actions to it, whether you’re planning to kill a mammoth or build a career.
A Wandering Mind Can Be a Source of Creative Inspiration
Psychologists call the time between when you’re presented with a complex problem and you arrive at its solution as incubation, which is cute and illustrative. Research has shown that if you’re working on a simple task—something like brushing your teeth—letting your mind wander allows for connections to arise. But if you’re doing something complicated—like driving down a busy road—you’d best pay attention.
The lesson, then, is to have a sense of meta-mindfulness: If we’re doing something simple, we can let our minds wander. But if the task at hand is complex, we might fall into a well.