Sci + Society,

#210: Mind Wandering

December 15, 2017

What was I just talking about?

Mind wandering doesn’t exactly have a great reputation.  The implication of the phrase is that your attention has wandered away from whatever you should be focused on.

Who among us can’t remember jolting back to the present after hearing your name called in class… A teacher had just asked a question, but you have no idea what was being discussed.  Your mind was elsewhere.

Mind wandering can be pleasurable, but we almost always consider it a guilty pleasure.

And yet history is filled with intellectual breakthroughs harvested from the wanderings of great minds — minds who might never have been recognized as “great” if it weren’t for the fruits of their off-task thinking.  Einstein told of being in a sort of mind-wandering reverie, imagining “riding on a beam of light,” when he came up with the insights that led to his theory of relativity.

The number of musical songs, mathematical proofs, elaborate plans, verbal comebacks, and other ah has that people have created (or “discovered”) while mind-wandering is unknowable.  By some estimates, we spend as much as half of our waking lives with our minds “elsewhere.”  (As for our sleeping minds…whatever consciousness we retain in sleep is almost mind-wandering by definition.)

Who mind-wanders?  Why?  And to what end?

Christine Godwin is a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech, who has been studying wandering minds at the Center for Advanced Brain Imaging.

Which of the brain’s systems are active when the mind slips off the leash of executive control?

What sorts of people mind-wander more often, and which less?  Are frequent mind-wanders more creative?  Are they less dependable?  Are they smarter?

And is mind-wandering good or bad on balance?  Is the bossy third-grade teacher who wants kids to pay attention in class really on the same team as the meditative mystic who only wants to quiet the “monkey mind”?

All this and more in Episode #210.

Show Notes
  • 00:00:23

    Episode introduction: Mind Wandering.

  • 00:01:21

    This Week In Neuroscience: Motor inhibition.

  • 00:05:09

    5-Star review shoutouts.

  • 00:06:00

    SDS news and updates.

  • 00:07:10

    Guest introduction: Christine Godwin.

  • 00:08:13

    Interview begins.

  • 00:09:10

    Mind wandering - traditional views and more recent views.

  • 00:10:00

    Functional connectivity between large scale brain networks in relation to mind wandering.

  • 00:12:15

    Are we good at self-assessing how much we mind wander?

  • 00:13:20

    Study methodologies.

  • 00:17:00

    Correlations with the "Default Mode Network."

  • 00:19:48

    Further subdividing mind wandering.

  • 00:20:49


  • 00:21:55

    Is mind wandering a teachable skill?

  • 00:24:20

    Meditation, mindfulness, and mind wandering.

  • 00:25:35

    Potential benefits of mind wandering?

  • 00:26:55

    Are there optimal times to let your mind wander?

  • 00:28:25

    How much time do people spend mind wandering?

  • 00:29:05

    Potential role of language in mind wandering?

  • 00:30:20

    Studies in progress and future studies.

  • 00:33:22

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:34:40

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Misophonia.

  • 00:37:22

    Episode wrap-up.

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