You’re in the middle of a meeting or driving to work and your mind drifts off to…
…chores on your to-do list, or
…a recent argument with a friend, or
…the grand possibilities of your future life.
You may not even realize you’ve departed on this train of thought until a friend or coworker quips: “Earth to Kevin, are you with us?”
During lectures in high school and college, or while trying to complete a dense reading assignment, I often caught myself failing to pay attention to my immediate environment. Much of the time, I would snap out of this state with the rude awakening that I had no idea what the professor was saying, or even what the last page of text said.
Recently, however, I’ve started to wonder if there are benefits to mind wandering, especially for learning.
For instance, absorbed in my internal world on long solo car trips, I have come up with creative ideas for beginning a blog post. Many of us are familiar with the experience of coming to insights about a tough problem while engaging in a completely unrelated activity.
(The most common place I’ve heard of this happening is in the shower, although I still don’t understand why this is the preferred location for these “ah ha” moments; alas, the research doesn’t seem to offer an explanation for this).
Do my anecdotal observations hold any elements of truth? What do researchers say about the impact of mind wandering on classroom learning? I’ll explore these questions and more in the following sections.
What is Mind-Wandering?
Researchers generally define mind-wandering as a state of “decoupled attention,” where attention is focused inward on self-generated thought instead of on the outside world. Of course, one does not need to be aware of mind-wandering to be mind-wandering.
(As an ironic side note, the potential for unaware mind-wandering makes mind-wandering challenging to study—especially because those who are less aware of their mind-wandering tend to mind-wander more. )
Importantly, mind-wandering isn’t a passive state as it may seem from the outside. Instead, it can consist of racing thoughts, deep consideration, and interesting associations. Emotionally, these self-generated thoughts can have a positive or negative valence, and thus even have implications for pathologies like depression. 
Benefits of Mind-Wandering
From an evolutionary perspective, it seems logical that mind-wandering must have served a functional, adaptive purpose. After all, given how widespread a phenomenon mind-wandering is, it would not have developed or endured if it always harmed, never benefitted, the species.
In their review of the mind-wandering literature , Jonathan Smallwood and Jonathan Schooler suggest several benefits of mind-wandering, including prospection and creativity.
Often when people mind-wander, they contemplate situations that they might encounter in the future. For instance, a student trying to study the night prior to a big test may be distracted by thoughts of their parents’ or teacher’s reaction to a poor grade.
Even though this student may be distracted by such future-focused thoughts, this prospection might also offer real benefits. For example, the student might suddenly realize that, if she fails the test, the teacher will offer test corrections and extra-help.
That is, prospective mind wandering can produce beneficial insights.
There has been a lot of discussion in media and education circles lately about designing learning and schooling to promote creativity (see Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk).
Some studies have suggested that mind-wandering can do just that.
For instance, Baird and colleagues  gave participants an everyday object—such as a brick—and asked them to think of as many potential uses for it as they could in 2 minutes. Researchers then gave some participants the opportunity to mind-wander, while preventing others from doing so. All participants then repeated their initial assignment: they had two minutes to think of distinct ways to use a brick.
Baird’s first key finding: during the second round, participants who mind-wandered during a mindless task thought of more ways to use a brick than those who had no chance to do so. That is: this mind-wandering promoted creativity.
Baird’s second key finding is perhaps more surprising. When mind-wanderers tried to think of uses for a new everyday object (a shovel rather than a brick), they were no better than those who did not mind-wander.
In short, Baird’s study suggests that mind-wandering boosts creativity in the middle of a cognitive process, not before it. Teachers who plan to promote mind-wandering should keep this scheduling note in mind.
Perils of Mind-Wandering: Reading Difficult Texts
Mind-wandering might benefits student with prospection and creativity, but it includes clear hazards as well.
In a 2013 study , researchers Shi Feng, Sidney D’Mello, and Art Graesser investigated mind-wandering and its relationship to reading comprehension.
Interestingly, they found that participants mind-wandered more while reading difficult texts than they did while reading simpler ones.
(This result is somewhat contradictory to some theories of mind-wandering. Reading difficult texts obviously requires working memory, and some researchers believe that mind-wandering needs excess working memory resources to take place.)
Feng hypothesized that readers of complex material could not build a deep and coherent picture of the text’s structure; in other words, they could not form a “situation model” that explained why events occurred or how a process worked.
In brief: text difficulty promotes mind-wandering, which in turn weakens the reader’s mental model and thereby reduces understanding.
This hypothesis helps explain my past experiences struggling to understand difficult information in history textbooks, or in a James Joyce story. Growing up dyslexic, I struggled with reading at its most fundamental level. To add to my woes, I would also find myself mindlessly tracking down a page…only to realize that the chores I was thinking about had nothing to do with the Joyce story I was supposed to be understanding.
Is there anything I could have done to curb my wandering mind and finally appreciate the literary genius of Dubliners without interruption?
How to Stay Focused
One intervention that seems to be promising is mindfulness training.
In a study by Mrazek and colleagues , participants completed either a two-week mindfulness program or a two-week nutrition class. Compared to those in the control condition, participants who meditated saw less mind-wandering, and enhanced performance on both reading and working memory tasks.
The authors hypothesized that the mindfulness intervention increased their ability to focus on the task at hand and suppress distracting thoughts . With the numerous other benefits to meditation, it’s definitely worth a try!
(You might check out the many mindfulness posts by my Learning and the Brain blogging colleague, Rina Deshpande.)
Message for Education
So should we worry about that student who is mind-wandering during a lesson or while trying to read a difficult novel? The research seems to suggest that we should – especially during difficult problem-solving or reading.
However, some research also suggests that we should also recognize the value of task-unrelated, introspective thought, especially when either prospection or creativity will benefit learning .
We might also let students know that there is value in taking a break by stepping away from a project to do something less demanding: cooking a meal, or walking the dog. 
With the right blend of external focus and self-generated thought, our students can harness the benefits of mind-wandering while also staying focused at the right times to integrate and understand new information.
- Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2015). The science of mind wandering: empirically navigating the stream of consciousness. Annual review of psychology, 66, 487-518. [Article]
- Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by distraction mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science. [Article]
- Feng, S., D’Mello, S., & Graesser, A. C. (2013). Mind wandering while reading easy and difficult texts. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 20(3), 586-592. [Article]
- Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science. [Article]