Wandering minds are active minds

UCSB brain researcher Jonathan Schooler has an intriguing theory about why our minds wander:
The regions of the brain that become active during mind wandering belong to two important networks. One is known as the executive control system. Located mainly in the front of the brain, these regions exert a top-down influence on our conscious and unconscious thought, directing the brain's activity toward important goals. The other regions belong to another network called the default network. In 2001 a group led by neuroscientist Marcus Raichle at Washington University discovered that this network was more active when people were simply sitting idly in a brain scanner than when they were asked to perform a particular task. The default network also becomes active during certain kinds of self-referential thinking, such as reflecting on personal experiences or picturing yourself in the future.

The fact that both of these important brain networks become active together suggests that mind wandering is not useless mental static. Instead, Schooler proposes, mind wandering allows us to work through some important thinking. Our brains process information to reach goals, but some of those goals are immediate while others are distant. Somehow we have evolved a way to switch between handling the here and now and contemplating long-term objectives. It may be no coincidence that most of the thoughts that people have during mind wandering have to do with the future.

The Brain Stop Paying Attention: Zoning Out Is a Crucial Mental State (via Kottke)


  1. “It may be no coincidence that most of the thoughts that people have during mind wandering have to do with the future.”

    Most of mine have to do with the past :(

  2. This is exactly what I need for the numerous times I’m reprimanded for leaving the bathroom light on or the back door open, and the granddaddy of them all, ‘not listening to me.’

    Unless you want to be changing my diapers in between rounds of anti-dementia medication in a few years, let me go mentally walkabout without recrimination from time to time.

    Of course, maybe in a few years the exo will take care of my bodily functions as well as basic mobility.

  3. sounds reminiscent of the “being-in-itself / being-for-itself” dichotomy of Sartre’s flavor of existentialism.

  4. I’ve lost count of how many times I got reprimanded in school for daydreaming when I was supposed to be paying attention in class. Where was Jonathan Schooler then, huh?

  5. Wow, so there is some important value in our morning or evening browsing through the web, going here and there, to boing-boing or joho-the-blog, jumping to CNN or technorati without specific purpose.

    Sometimes I feel bad I loose time on it, but maybe there is some value in such undirected, wandering activity ???

    And if my brain needs that – well …

  6. For someone with panic/anxiety disorder these “zoning out” phenomena are very scary dissociative episodes.

  7. Ought not there be a “Previously:” link to Pesco’s Default state of the human brain post from yesterday? Or are you guys doing that thing like y’all did with that guest blogger about global warming a few months back? No, wait–I don’t want to go there… I’m trying to read both these default region posts to determine if there’s a controversy… Y’know, I can’t even focus long enough to get from beginning to end on posts about mental wandering. But I’m excited if this flurry of posts implies that there’s some new strain of science that might lead to pharmacological helpers fine tuned to dampen the default noise levels from time to time… regardless of whether these things happen to already exist… what was I… Nootropics! That’s what I’m talking about! Is this what Ritalin, or Piracetam, and/or other “smart drugs” are trying to squelch, the default “noise”?

    I love really noisy music. I bet that’s analogous to my cluttered mental state…. There has to be some measurable qualitative difference in the operations of the default regions for people like me, compared to people like Cory and/or Merlin Mann, who may or may not love noise themselves, but whose mental wanderings are much more demonstrably subservient to their creative exploits. Er, well, there doesn’t have to be, I guess… I dunno. What Frank W. said, above, about meditation being a time and place for mental wandering–if that’s right, then I have a completely different understanding of what is the default state of my brain, ’cause it sure as fuck ain’t the same as what I’m shooting for in my paltry efforts at meditating!

  8. “It may be no coincidence that most of the thoughts that people have during mind wandering have to do with the future.”

    Hmmm. Most of mine have to do with cheerleaders or naughty catholic schoolgirls. If that’s my future, HELL YES

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