When Wandering Minds are Just Fine

While most psychologists call mind wandering a detrimental “failure of executive control," a new study suggests that it's not always harmful.

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It’s a common experience for most students. You’re sitting in a lecture that covers material you already know, and before long your mind drifts and you become occupied with thoughts of what you’ll do over the weekend, or what you should make for dinner, or whether you should ask out the person sitting in the front row.

While most of the psychological literature has painted such mind wandering as a detrimental “failure of executive control” or a “dysfunctional cognitive state,” a new study led by Paul Seli, a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow working in the lab of Dan Schacter, suggests that in some cases there’s no harm in allowing the mind to wander.

The first-of-its-kind study showed that, when performing a task that didn’t demand constant attention, people were able to strategically allow their minds to wander without an impact on task performance. The study is described in a paper published in Psychological Science.

“To date, the vast majority of tasks used in the literature on mind wandering have been very attentionally demanding,” Seli said. “The problem is that, if people want to perform well on such tasks, they’re required to constantly focus their attention … because…