Random thoughts — An exploration into our wandering minds

Mark Storm
10 min readJun 21, 2016


Daydreaming (Photograph: Craig Sunter)

An exploration into our wandering minds

Years ago, I applied for a position at the board of a Dutch multinational. At the end of the procedure, I had to undergo a 2-day assessment. As this was a new experience, I went to the nearest bookstore — we’re talking pre-Amazon time here — and bought a couple of books to prepare. I was surprised to read how the authors persistently advised their readers to answer questions, such as, “Do you often daydream?” with a firm ‘never.’ Apparently, daydreaming wasn’t allowed in the board room — or anywhere else for that matter. Eager as I was, though, to land my first executive position as senior vice president of something terribly important, I made sure to answer all mind-wandering related questions with an ‘absolutely never.’ And indeed, after two days of tests, talks, and more tests, I got the job; albeit with a lie.

Afterwards, the company’s chief executive told me I apparently had it in me — “you are ‘CEO material,’” he explained. In hindsight, I should have taken this as a bad omen, but I was new to board room politics, so, I had no idea. Not yet, anyway. But I never gave up daydreaming, though. Fortunately, the board room turned out to be the exact right place for it …

When neuroscientists explore brain activity, they need a way of getting the brain back to a neutral state between tests. This is typically done by asking the person to stare at a simple white cross in the middle of a black screen. By thinking about nothing in particular, the theory goes, the brain should basically switch off. But it doesn’t.

The first sign that a resting brain is surprisingly active came some twenty years ago. Bharat Biswal, who was, at the time, studying for a PhD at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, noticed that, even when people were told to clear their minds or to stare at a cross, activity in the brain continued. Not only that, the brain scans seemed to reveal this activity was actually coordinated.

A few years later, an analysis incorporating the results of nine brain scan studies revealed another surprise. Gordon Schulman, a Professor of Neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, hoped his analysis would help identify the network that comes to life when people pay attention. But he discovered the opposite — the network which is activated when we do nothing.

Daydreaming, by the Belgium painter Fernand Toussaint (1873–1956).

It took a while for the idea that the brain never rests to catch on. For years neuroscientists had thought that brain circuits switched off when they weren’t needed. In 1998 the neuroscientist Marcus Raichle, one of today’s leaders in the field and a colleague of Schulman at the Washington University School of Medicine, even had a paper rejected by a referee who said the apparent activity must surely be down to an error in the data. Since the, thousands of scientific papers have been published on the topic of the brain’s surprisingly busy ‘resting state’. Some object to this term for the very reason that the brain isn’t resting at all. They prefer instead to talk about the ‘default mode network’ — the areas of the brain which remain active while we are apparently idle.

The big question is: why is the idling brain so active?

There are plenty of theories, but nothing is settled yet. Maybe different brain areas are simply practising working together. Or the brain is staying active, like an idling car, just in case it needs to act suddenly. It’s also possible that those mind wanderings and replays of our day play an crucial role in helping us to consolidate our memories.

It is almost as though our brain is programmed to contemplate the future whenever it finds itself unoccupied.

We know that when the mind is left to wander, it often focuses on the future. We start thinking about what we’re going to eat in the evening or where we’re going to go next week. All three of the chief areas of the brain involved in imagining the future are part of the default mode network. It is almost as though our brain is programmed to contemplate the future whenever it finds itself unoccupied.

The discovery that the brain is never truly at rest could help make sense of a longstanding mystery: why does the brain uses 20% of body’s energy when the activities we know it performs should need only need about 5%? Resting state activity might account for some of this discrepancy.

The discovery of the resting state also has the potential to change the way we each feel about our brains. We know how hard it is to think of nothing, and how our minds have a frustrating tendency to wander, even if we don’t want them to. But the emerging picture suggests these quirks might actually be beneficial. So, maybe it’s time to celebrate the virtues of an idle mind.

The American novelist, poet, playwright and art collector Gertrude Stein.

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.” — Gertrude Stein

According to Wired magazine editor Rowland Manthorpe, “mind-wandering is showing every sign of becoming a thing, buoyed to the surface of popular culture by the overlapping interests of business and self-help. At the root of this turnaround: the idea that mind-wandering is not a waste of attention but simply a different kind of focus.”

Mind-wandering is offered as a complement to mindfulness: “One mental mode is potentially just as beneficial as the other,” as Fast Company puts it. A better question would be: why are these opposing philosophies of mind gaining popularity at the same time? What does it tell us about ourselves that we desire simultaneously to focus and escape? To answer this, it is first necessary to explore mind-wandering’s scientific background. And that’s precisely what Manthorpe does in Mind-Wandering — The Rise of a New Anti-Mindfulness Movement.

“Mind-wandering is one of those paradoxical mental states, like sleep, which is impossible to enter into by conscious effort. To observe it, researchers adopt two main strategies. Either they ask people to tell them when they have been mind-wandering. Or they give them something to do, then interrupt them to ask if their mind is focused. Once it’s been confirmed that a ‘task-unrelated thought,’ or TUT, has taken place, then psychologists can examine the neuroimagery to see what was happening in the brain at the time.”

Scientific studies confirm all sorts of common intuitions. We mind-wander most when we are bored, or working at simple, repetitive tasks, such as washing the dishes, or when we are stressed or tired. By delving more deeply into the reasons we drift off, these studies also reveal the benefits of this peripatetic state, whereas previously the costs had dominated the discussion.

In an age in which innovation is prized above all things, the combination of creativity and forward thinking is an extremely potent one.

Chief among these benefits is creativity. The hidden dividend of zoning out, confirmed by tests on students with ADHD, is an increase in insight and imagination. But mind-wandering also helps us think about the future. When we allow ourselves to tune out, we can wander in time and space, reflecting on past events and contemplating possibilities for the future. It speaks for itself that, in an age dominated by innovation, this combination of creativity and forward thinking is an extremely potent one.

Jonathan Smallwood, reader in the department of psychology at the University of York, and perhaps the foremost researcher in the field, believes that the content of mind-wandering is as important as the context: “It is not mind-wandering per se that we should be focused on when trying to improve health and wellbeing; rather if we want to be happy we should care what we mind-wander about.” In this view, the whole scope of thought seems to be taken into account: what we think, how and why we think it, when and where the thought takes place.

But why are mind-wandering and mindfulness attracting attention at the same time? According to Rowland Manthorpe, the answer lies in our expectations of psychological self-help. “Mindfulness is the perfect plug-in for late modern capitalism: it helps us cope while at the same time making us more productive. And although it might at first glance seem to be very different, mind-wandering has the potential to do the same. We are allowed to drift off, because, if we do it in the right way, then even those breaks are useful. It is okay to waste time, because wasted time is not in fact wasted at all.”

Read on TheLong+Short: http://thelongandshort.org/society/is-mind-wandering-an-anti-mindfulness-movement.

In a recent paper titled Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, writer Rebecca McMillan and NYU cognitive psychologist Scott Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, revisit Jerome L. Singer’s groundbreaking research into daydreaming to deliver new insights into how the first style of Singer’s mind-wandering, rather than robbing us of happiness, plays an essential, empowering role in daily life and creativity. One of the most fascinating aspects the authors explore is the seeming paradox of the high costs of daydreaming, which prevents us from wholly inhabiting the present moment, and the astounding frequency with which we engage in it.

“Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment.” — Jerome L. Singer

“Right from the start, Singer’s research produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. His early research included studies looking at delayed gratification and the interaction of imagination and waiting ability in young children. In another early study presented evidence of correlation between daydreaming frequency, measures of creativity, and storytelling activity. […] Singer explored the relationship between daydreaming, personality, divergent thought, creativity, planning, problem solving, associational fluency, curiosity, attention, and distractibility. Singer noted that daydreaming can reinforce and enhance social skills, offer relief from boredom, provide opportunities for rehearsal and constructive planning, and provide an ongoing source of pleasure. In later work, Singer describes those who engage in positive constructive daydreaming as ‘happy daydreamers’ who enjoy fantasy, vivid imagery, the use of daydreaming for future planning, and possess abundant interpersonal curiosity.”

Lynda Barry watercolor over Freud’s essay on creative writing and daydreaming.

Read on Brainpickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/10/09/mind-wandering-and-creativity.

“How is mind-wandering generated in the brain?,” Robert M. Sapolsky asks in The Benefits of Mind-Wandering.

One finding is provocative. When our minds are wandering, our ‘dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’ (dlPFC) is activated. This is surprising, because the dlPFC is a relatively recently evolved brain region, central to executive functions like long-term planning, working memory and decision-making. It’s the last brain region that you would expect to get involved with something as frivolous as mind-wandering.

“Perhaps the activation of this brain region is actually a response to mind-wandering rather than a mediator of it. Suppose the mind-wandering brain circuit, wherever that is, activates and the dlPFC tries to put a brake on it, essentially saying: ‘Hey, we’re trying to get something done — enough daydreaming!’,” Sapolsky writes.

Gold Cortex II, by Greg Dunn, who earned a PhD in neuroscience before deciding to become a professional artist.

But what does it mean that the dlPFC want us to daydream? Probably because it can be beneficial.

“For starters,” Sapolsky explains “mind-wandering fosters creative problem solving. It also aids decision-making by allowing you to run future-oriented simulations in your head: ‘Hmm, so how might things be if I decide to do X? How about if I do Y?’ It’s ideal not just for thinking about possible outcomes but also for thinking about how different outcomes would feel.”

Truly creative solutions to tough problems are often found by following a wandering path.

It seems our can-do executive region of the brain has evolved to take into account two pieces of wisdom: distraction makes tedium more tolerable, and truly creative solutions to tough problems are often found by following a wandering path.

Read on Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-benefits-of-mind-wandering-1434716243.

“There are many moments throughout my average day that, lacking print reading material in a previous era, were once occupied by thinking or observing my surroundings: walking or waiting somewhere, riding the subway, lying in bed unable to sleep or before mustering the energy to get up. Now, though, I often find myself in these situations picking up my phone to check a notification, browse and read the internet, text, use an app or listen to audio (or, on rare occasions, engage in an old-fashioned ‘telephone call’). The last remaining place I’m guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower,” Teddy Wayne writes in The End of Reflection.

“We’ve adopted the Google ideal of the mind, which is that you have a question that you can answer quickly: close-ended, well-defined questions. Lost in that conception is that there’s also this open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you. As a society, we’re saying that that way of thinking isn’t as important anymore. It’s viewed as inefficient.” — Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallowson on what the internet is doing to our brains.

Read on New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/fashion/internet-technology-phones-introspection.html?_r=1&referer=.

Daydreaming, by Radiohead from their album A Moon Shaped Pool (2016).



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought