The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness

Posted: 9 Jan 2015

See all articles by Jonathan Smallwood

Jonathan Smallwood

Max Plank Institute, Leipzig

Jonathan Schooler

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)

Date Written: January 2015

Abstract

Conscious experience is fluid; it rarely remains on one topic for an extended period without deviation. Its dynamic nature is illustrated by the experience of mind wandering, in which attention switches from a current task to unrelated thoughts and feelings. Studies exploring the phenomenology of mind wandering highlight the importance of its content and relation to meta-cognition in determining its functional outcomes. Examination of the information-processing demands of the mind-wandering state suggests that it involves perceptual decoupling to escape the constraints of the moment, its content arises from episodic and affective processes, and its regulation relies on executive control. Mind wandering also involves a complex balance of costs and benefits: Its association with various kinds of error underlines its cost, whereas its relationship to creativity and future planning suggest its potential value. Although essential to the stream of consciousness, various strategies may minimize the downsides of mind wandering while maintaining its productive aspects.

Suggested Citation

Smallwood, Jonathan and Schooler, Jonathan, The Science of Mind Wandering: Empirically Navigating the Stream of Consciousness (January 2015). Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 66, pp. 487-518, 2015. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2547492 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015331

Jonathan Smallwood (Contact Author)

Max Plank Institute, Leipzig ( email )

Jonathan Schooler

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) ( email )

Santa Barbara, CA 93106
United States

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