Core Concept Neuroscience and Psychology Published: March 20, 2024

Mind Wandering Can Be a Good Thing


Staying focused is important for nearly every human activity, yet we often struggle to do it. When we are unable to focus our thoughts, we say that we are mind wandering. Mind wandering is very common and occurs in every healthy mind. In fact, mind wandering may even reflect the regular way of thinking, unless people make special efforts to prevent it. But is all mind wandering the same? Why does the mind wander, and when? What effect does mind wandering have in our lives? In answering these questions, we will show how mind wandering can even be helpful for things like creativity and learning.

Mind Wandering and Its Consequences

Any student knows that it can be hard to keep attention focused. For instance, when you are supposed to be listening to your teacher, you may find your mind drifting away. You might look out the window, make plans for after school, or think about nothing at all! Sadly, if students let their attention drift too far or for too long, they may miss what the teacher is saying—much to the dismay of teachers everywhere!

This experience is very interesting to scientists, many of whom also struggled to focus in school. Sustained attention is the term used to describe the ability to keep focused on whatever activities we are trying to do. We know that sustained attention is very important for many different things—like learning and remembering. We also know that sustained attention often fails and attention shifts to unrelated thoughts—this is called mind wandering [1]. Mind wandering is surprisingly common. Some studies find that people may spend nearly half their day mind wandering.

The effects of mind wandering can vary a lot. Sometimes there are no effects at all (Figure 1). Think about drinking a glass of water: this task is simple and happens often, allowing you to drink without much effort or spilling, even if your mind is wandering. This kind of behavior is automatic.

Figure 1 - Mind wandering can occur anytime, anywhere—it is a normal part of the way the brain works.
  • Figure 1 - Mind wandering can occur anytime, anywhere—it is a normal part of the way the brain works.
  • Photo by Vanessa Bumbeers on Unsplash.

Other times, mind wandering has minor effects. If you briefly lose focus on your teacher’s voice, you may not hear what was said; but by rapidly focusing on the teacher’s voice again, you can get back on track fairly easily. Finally, there are instances when mind wandering can have very serious results. Imagine crossing the street or riding a bike without focusing on your surroundings.

Because mind wandering is such a common and normal part of daily life, scientists have asked two major questions about it. First, is mind wandering one thing, or are there different kinds? Second, why does mind wandering happen at all?

Question #1: Is All Mind Wandering the Same?

Many studies have tried to discover whether there are different kinds of mind wandering. These studies show that people can lose focus in different ways. Mind wandering can happen on purpose or by accident. Attention can also focus inward (on your thoughts) or outward (on the world around you). Finally, people can lose focus just a little (shallow) or a lot (deep). Do not worry if those sound complicated—we will discuss each one.

The first big difference is whether mind wandering is on purpose or not. Most mind wandering appears to happen on its own, or by accident [2]. For instance, a surprising sound may capture your attention. Other times, you may just lose focus and have no idea why. That said, mind wandering can also happen on purpose. Consider waiting at a doctor’s office, when you must maintain enough awareness to hear your name being called. At the same time, you will probably allow other thoughts to run through your mind. This “on-purpose” kind of mind wandering is common when doing something easy, or when you do not feel motivated.

Another way of understanding mind wandering is to consider what you are thinking about when you lose focus. This is the difference between internal and external mind wandering [3]. Perhaps while waiting at the doctor’s office, you start looking out the window to watch people walking by—this focuses on your senses and the world around you and is called external mind wandering. The opposite would be if you focused on your inner thoughts—maybe remembering your last doctor’s visit or planning for what you will do later in the day—and this is called internal mind wandering.

Finally, mind wandering can differ based on how deep vs. shallow it is. One idea [4] is that there are three levels of mind wandering. The deeper your level of mind wandering, the less connected you are to the world around you. Think of mind wandering as a slinky bouncing down stairs. Unless something stops it, the mind will keep going from shallow mind wandering (the top steps) into the deeper kinds (bottom steps).

The first, most shallow step in mind wandering involves very short and shallow dips in your attention to detail. This is relatively common, like briefly zoning out during class. The effects, however, are usually small. People will usually notice they are mind wandering and choose to refocus their attention.

If attention is not refocused, it is likely that mind wandering will progress to the second, medium, level. This involves longer-lasting lapses in attention, which you are less likely to notice. When mind wandering at this medium depth, you can still go through the motions of activities that are familiar to you, like brushing your teeth or eating a meal. These activities are a kind of automatic responding—like a robot that is programmed to do some task but is not really thinking. When the robot makes a mistake, it continues with whatever it was programmed to do.

The final and deepest level of mind wandering involves paying the least attention to the surrounding world. It is marked by the most extreme changes in behavior, like blank stares and missing what others say. In this deeper level, attention is directed internally, or to nowhere at all, which is called mind blanking. This level is most likely to result in serious consequences, like if you are riding a bike or learning to drive (Figure 2).

Figure 2 - Mind wandering can be dangerous, depending on the activity you are participating in.
  • Figure 2 - Mind wandering can be dangerous, depending on the activity you are participating in.
  • For example, failure to maintain focus while biking could lead to a crash. Shallow mind wandering is less risky (you can likely refocus) but deeper mind wandering is far more dangerous. Photo by William Hook on Unsplash.

In sum, different kinds of mind wandering exist. Despite these differences in the types of mind wandering, a common finding is that people struggle with whatever they are doing when the mind wanders [5].

Question #2: Why Does Mind Wandering Happen?

Much evidence suggests that mind wandering is not a rare mistake, but actually a very normal part of the way the mind works! In other words, the mind will naturally wander unless it is given a specific job [2, 6]. In fact, we now know that attention-related disorders like ADHD can be understood as a normal behavior (mind wandering) that is simply happening in an unusually high amount. This knowledge makes it easier to study how much mind wandering is normal and how mind wandering can impact other parts of life, such as emotions and learning [7].

So why do we mind wander in the first place? The likely reason is that mind wandering serves useful purposes. For instance, mind wandering can help in problem solving, creative thinking, and planning for the future [8]. Even when you are not trying to think about anything, your mind is still working in the background. Without trying, your mind might start focusing on memories that could help solve a problem in the present. This can be when creative or unusual ideas are made! For instance, a musician might combine different melodies to make something new.

Also, mind wandering can help with learning and memory—specifically for things that are not relevant to the task at hand [5, 8]. People who mind wander more show greater learning for this irrelevant information, and the learning is best during periods of mind wandering [9]. After learning, mind wandering helps strengthen recent memories. This benefit is strongest when the memories are relevant to you personally.

Finally, mind wandering offers a time to “rest” and prepare for upcoming thinking [8, 10]. It prevents new information from entering the mind and using up limited attention in processing that new information. When our minds wander, we can then process older information in new ways. Creative ideas can be built and used to plan or solve problems. When our minds wander, our attention can also focus on sources of information that are potentially useful, like thinking about plans for later in the day, for example. When that information is useful, it can be processed and remembered.


The mind actually does a lot when it wanders! So, do not see mind wandering as a mistake. Try to remember how mind wandering redirects your focus. This allows you to learn new things and to process information better. There are times when you should try to focus your attention, like when riding a bike. However, always remember that taking a mental break is healthy. There are many wonderful things in the world that you can notice when you let your mind wander. So, let yourself gaze out the window or stare at clouds, or even close your eyes and simply “be”.


Sustained Attention: The ability to focus attention while ignoring distractions, over time.

Mind Wandering: Thinking about anything other than the task you should be focusing on.

External Mind Wandering: Focusing attention on the world around you, through your senses (sight, sound, and more).

Internal Mind Wandering: Focusing attention on your inner thoughts, such as recalling memories or planning for the future.

Mind Blanking: When the mind is not active, and attention is not focused on any particular thoughts.

ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; a mental health disorder involving many instances of mind wandering.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


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