The Wandering Mind: How the Brain Allows Us to Mentally Wander Off to Another Time and Place
A unique human characteristic is our ability to mind wander – a period of time when our attention drifts away from the task-at-hand to focus on thoughts that are unrelated to the task. These thoughts are sometimes associated with beneficial outcomes, such as creativity; other times, they are linked to negative outcomes, such as errors in our task performance. Interestingly, we spend up to half of our waking hours mind wandering. How does our brain help us accomplish that? Research suggests that when we mind wander, our response to information from the external world around us is disrupted. In other words, our brain’s resources are shifted away from processing information from the external environment and redirected to our internal world, which allows us to mentally wander off to another time and place. Although many external processes are disrupted during mind wandering, our ability to detect unexpected events in our surrounding environment is preserved. This suggests that we are quite clever about what we ignore or pay attention to in the external environment even when we mind wander.