Not All Minds That Wander Are Lost

Wandering and daydreaming, though reprimanded in the classroom, are glorified themes in Romantic and post-Romantic literature. Nineteenth century poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy recognized the innovations that often result from the intelligence of wandering minds in his renowned poem The Ode:

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

This famous stanza from The Ode depicts people with wandering minds as contemplative, detached, yet highly effective people. From the depths of the daydreamers’ reveries, world-changing thoughts and ideas arise. The Romantic emphasis on the power of the imagination sets its style apart from that of preceding movements that value pure logic above the creative faculties of the mind, considering the human imagination to be an unnecessary, intellectually disposable indulgence [1]. However, it turns out that contemporary psychology is supporting the Romantic notion of the brilliance of daydreamers.

This year, several psychological studies have suggested that mind wandering, often dubbed “zoning out,” has several surprising intellectual benefits. Mind wandering actually involves higher levels of thinking, particularly your working memory. Working memory is a superior subset of human memory capabilities, and is considered to be “the building block of all cognition” [2]. Working memory is involved in advanced mental processes such as reading skills, language comprehension, and analytical thinking.

The role of mind wandering in working memory manifested itself in a recent psychological study by Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science. The participants in this study were each asked to complete relatively simple tasks: “pressing a button in response to the appearance of a certain letter on a screen, or simply tapping in time with one’s breath” [3]. According to researcher Jonathan Smallwood, “[This study] intentionally uses tasks that will never use all of their attention, and then we ask, how do people use their idle resources?” [3]. Throughout their time performing each task, the participants were asked if their minds were on task or wandering, and would reply with a “yes” or “no.” The people with wandering minds ended up performing significantly higher than their non-wandering counterparts on IQ tests. This is important, because IQ tests require people to use their working memory to correctly solve its problems.

Smallwood offers an explanation of why your mind’s propensity to wander is correlated with your working memory capacity: “What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing” [3]. In other words, letting your mind wander while performing mundane tasks can actually increase your productivity by allowing you think about your priorities, as well as ruminating on problems and potential solutions.

Science Daily summarizes the implications this discovery:

Where your mind wanders may be an indication of underlying priorities being held in your working memory, whether conscious or not, he says. But it doesn’t mean that people with high working memory capacity are doomed to a straying mind. The bottom line is that working memory is a resource and it’s all about how you use it, [Levinson] says. “If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too.”

If you find your thoughts drifting while you’re walking home, doing chores, or even reading this article, there’s a good chance that you could be one of the world’s “movers and shakers.” Don’t let your brain power go to waste–start being conscientious of where your mind wanders, write down your ideas, and see if you can change the world.


[1] Romanticism, CUNY Brooklyn
[2] Working Memory, Gemm Learning
[3] A Wandering Mind Reveals Mental Processes and Priorities, Science Daily

Image via
Museuma (Berthe Morisot)

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