Jonathan Schooler was a daydreamer as a kid, as his first grade report card made evident.
“It said something to the effect of ‘When I think of Jonathan, I imagine him at the end of the line, five feet behind everybody else, shoes untied, totally preoccupied, and completely content,” Schooler recounted.
Schooler, who is now a professor of psychological and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara, says his teacher struggled with his mind-wandering – a situation he guesses isn’t unusual. In his case, it all worked out.
“Apparently I won her over when she caught me crying at the end of Charlotte's Web,” Schooler said. “She decided that whatever my peculiarities were, she was happy to live with them.”
Schooler says more of us should be happy to not only tolerate, but embrace, mind-wandering. For one, it’s unavoidable.
“The bottom line is that your mind is always doing something, it's always somewhere,” Schooler explained. “When you're not actively engaging it in something, it will find his own activities - typically thinking about current concerns or other pressing issues. The mind just naturally goes there.”
In fact, the network of brain areas that are engaged when our minds wander is known as the default network. And Schooler thinks that wandering minds may provide insight into the fundamental nature of consciousness.
But Schooler says mind-wandering is – or can be – more than an academic tool. There’s evidence that letting our minds wander after taking in a new piece of information can aid learning.
Schooler’s research has also shown that mind-wandering can promote creative problem-solving. Creative writers and physicists reported that about twenty percent of their ideas happened when they were not at work, and not actively thinking about the challenge. And the ideas that came from mind-wandering were important.
“They were as creative as the ones that they had at their desk,” Schooler said. “They were more likely to involve an ‘Ah-ha!’ experience, where they seemed to sort of pop out of the blue, and critically, more likely to involve overcoming an impasse of some sort.”
Schooler says the most productive mind-wandering is a gentle, curious exploration of something of particular interest or meaning. He calls it ‘mind-wondering.’
Interestingly, people engaged in unfocused mind-wandering generally report being less happy, but those engaged in mind-wondering are happier.
Schooler acknowledges that not all mind-wandering is positive. Obviously, a surgeon in the midst of an operation, or a heavy equipment driver on the job, can’t afford to let their mind wander. And Schooler says focus and attention are critical skills for everyone.
But he maintains that there is a time and place – actually, a lot of times and places – when mind-wandering may be appropriate and even desirable.
“We're always trying to fill every moment of our time with cell phones and not giving our minds the opportunity to just wander off,” Schooler lamented. “That may interfere with the opportunity to have these moments of productive mind-wandering.”