Daydreaming Isn't Always Accidental

Most research looking at mind wandering has assumed that all mind wandering is inherently unintentional, but findings from a new study suggest otherwise: People frequently report zoning out on purpose, and the causes of this “intentional” type of mind wandering can differ from the causes of unintentional mind wandering.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“In recent years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of studies examining mind wandering,” explains researcher Paul Seli, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Harvard University and lead author on the study. “The general assumption has been that people’s experiences of mind wandering exclusively reflect their attention unintentionally drifting away from a task. Based on our everyday experiences, however, it seems that people frequently intentionally mind-wander.”

To learn more about the underlying causes of intentional and unintentional mind wandering, Seli and University of Waterloo colleagues Evan F. Risko and Daniel Smilek measured rates of these two types of mind wandering in 113 university students as they completed sustained-attention tasks that varied in difficulty.

“We suspect that when people are completing an easy task, they may be inclined to deliberately disengage from the task and engage in mind wandering. This might be the case because easy tasks tend to be rather boring, or because people realize that they can get away with mind wandering without sacrificing performance,” the researchers explain.

“Conversely, when completing a difficult task, people really need to focus on the task in order to perform well, so if they do mind-wander, their mind wandering should be more likely to occur unintentionally.”

Participants were instructed to press the space bar on a computer keyboard each time they saw specific target numbers appear on screen (i.e., digits 1–2 and 4–9). Half of the students completed an easy version of this task, where the numbers always appeared in sequential order; the other participants completed a challenging version of the task where the numbers always appeared in a random order.

Throughout the experiment, participants were prompted to mark their current mental state as being on task, intentionally mind wandering, or unintentionally mind wandering (e.g., thinking about what to eat for dinner or upcoming plans with friends).

The overall rate of mind wandering was the same for both groups, but critically, there were significant differences in rates of intentional and unintentional mind wandering, depending on how challenging the task was. When participants completed the easy task, which was designed to be incredibly boring, they reported more intentional mind wandering. In contrast, participants completing the challenging task reported more unintentional mind wandering.