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A Sometimes Joyful Wandering Mind
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
We tend to think that we're consciously engaged during most of
the time that we're awake, but the reality is that we're consciously
engaged during only about half of it. Further, goal directed activity
encompasses only about 1/3 of the typical 24-hour cycle. The renowned
psychologist Michael Corballis (2015) suggests that much of the rest of
our time is spent in an idling process called mind wandering. He
discusses the phenomenon in an intriguing book, Mind Wandering: What the Brain Does When You're Not Looking.
The basic point of a wandering mind is this: Our brain simultaneously
processes a variety of concerns. A satisfying response for some
problems occurs almost immediately. Some responses require us to delay
and incorporate additional elements. Some problems have no immediate
solution and require ongoing searches.
The following situation often occurs when I'm writing during an
evening. I'll come to a point at which I can't think of the appropriate
term or phrase that I need to continue. Checking Google doesn't help.
Finally, I decide to forget about it and go to bed. I lie down, and a
few minutes later, the elusive phrase pops up in my mind. I get up and
jot it down because if I don't, I'll have forgotten it in the morning.
My evening writing had been only one of a variety of body systems and
cognitive issues that my brain had been processing. My sensory and
motor systems basically shut down when I lay down to sleep, but some
currently important cognitive problems continued to occupy my mind as
long as I was still awake. Since more of my relaxed brain was now
available to search for the elusive phrase, it quickly emerged since it
was obviously a phrase that I had previously used. You've undoubtedly
had similar experiences so you understand the mental joy that such
A student uninterested in a class session can similarly wander mentally
into a different set of experiences. Some such wanderings can be quite
pleasurable, others seek solutions to difficult problems. This daytime
wandering mind process is commonly called day dreaming.
Daytime Mind Wandering
Mind wandering can assume various forms. Some formats, such as novels,
poems, songs, films, and political promises are fictional. Others, such
as inattentive accidents, often begin with mind wandering. A fictional
work can begin with mind wondering, but the author's actual development
of it requires a focused mind, one that will catch and then eliminate
the kinds of omissions that can occur with pure mind wandering.
Fictional works are about an intriguing pretend
story, but they have to match (or at least approximate) the realities
of real life. Fictional development thus shifts back and forth between
mental wandering and focused thought. This back and forth shift is
pretty much what we do during much of our waking time. Corballis
suggests that it creates an even split between focused and wandering
Mind wandering occurs within what's called the default-mode network,
which is composed of various brain regions that aren't involved in
regulating sensory/motor functions. Think of the diffuse activity in a
small town. People are carrying out their normal tasks when a noisy
event occurs. Those who can temporarily leave their tasks do so to see
what occurred. The rest of the community continues on with what they
were doing, but the overall activity is now briefly centralized around
the noisy event, and it's reduced elsewhere. People gradually wander
back to what they were previously doing (perhaps telling others about
the event) and things go back to normal. The default-mode network can
thus be easily and temporarily distracted, an advantage for an alert
brain that needs to process many challenges. The comedian Steven Wright
put it, "I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering off."
Nighttime Mind Wandering
Conscious activity periodically leaves us, and especially for an
extended period at night. A night’s sleep is commonly divided into 1.5
hours of REM sleep (rapid eye movement, or dreaming sleep) and the rest
in non-REM sleep (NREM). NREM sleep is thought to consolidate learned
material and memories. Think of periodically taking one's car in to get
its parts and systems serviced.
REM sleep occurs about every 90 minutes, and it also activates the
default-mode network. The length of dreaming increases as the night
increases, and also as we get older. Narratives enter into dreams at
about seven years of age. Dreams are much less about consolidating and
contemplating than is NREM sleep. In most people, dreams become
explorations of mostly visual phenomena. Yearnings and fears can
dominate. The prefrontal cortex is fortuitously deactivated during
dreaming to keep us from acting out our dreams, many of which are
positive and upbeat. Ted Geisel, the author of the Dr. Seuss books,
suggested that, "You know that you're in love when you can't fall
asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams."
External Mind Wandering
We've evolved to periodically escape the complexities that dominate the
here and now. Mind wandering is the internal version, and the varieties
of play comprise the external. Play is the opportunity that we and
others have to observe our mind wandering. Play is antic in that others
may find our behavior strange, but it's something that we find
enjoyable from childhood on. Play can involve childhood explorations of
what to do with legs/body/arms, or adults paying a lot of money to
watch a ballet company explore the greater complexities of
legs/bodies/arms. We call football sequences plays but they're actually well-rehearsed sequences designed by coaches who don't do the plays. Well, maybe they did play when they imagined what might occur if this player did this and that player did that.
Whatever. Mind wandering isn't a waste of time. We have occasions when
we need to attend carefully to a task, but we've also evolved to
day-dream and night-dream and to mentally wander off briefly during a
lot of occasions in between. It's irrelevant whether mind wandering
results in creative developments that will change society or only
provides a bit of imaginative enjoyment or concern. It's evolved to be
an integral part of who we are. That's enough.
Longman.Corballis, M. (2015) Mind wandering: What the brain does when you're not looking. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent of 10 books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit seven books for the IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run.
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