Q/ What is the basic premise of Mindwandering?
A/Mindwandering is the first popular book to explore the multi-faceted phenomenon of the wandering mind. Our mind has different states that are dynamic and that cluster together the many aspects of our mental being: perception, attention, thought, openness and mood. There is a right mind for the right occasion, and our mission is to maximise the match and minimise the friction.
Q/ What happens inside the brain during mindwandering?
A/ Research has revealed that our brains are inherently active. A number of brain regions connected in what is dubbed the default mode network (DMN) are always grinding away, engaged in a number of different involuntary activities that neuroscientists collectively call mindwandering: from daydreaming to the incessant self-chatter and from ruminating about the past to worrying about the future. The brain regions most often identified as being part of the DMN include the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the angular gyrus, but there are several more that come and go as part of this massive, large-scale network.
Not only does all this inner commotion tug our attention away from the present moment, but it can also dampen the quality of our experience, lowering our mood and potentially contributing to anxiety and depression. Yet there is a method to this apparent madness. Evolution has clearly taught our minds to wander. According to various studies, they are caught up in mindwandering between 30 and 47 percent of our waking time, gobbling up a great deal of energy. The logic of evolution suggests there must be something beneficial about it, and over the course of the past couple of decades, my neuroscience compatriots and I have identified a core set of its important functions.
Q/ What has been your most fascinating discovery of the brain since you took up neuroscience?
A/ Just like my kids, all my discoveries are dear to my heart (and mind). The highest sense of mission I get is from my findings on how thinking can affect mood, which we are currently using to try to alleviate the suffering of people with depression and anxiety (through science-based games). My work on predictions and mental simulations in mindwandering is another flagship of my laboratory, and it gives me immense pleasure to be able to share it with the general public. My other research ranges from aesthetics and urban design to first impressions and visual perception. One can get a sense of my ADHD from the diversity of my research questions, I guess.
Q/ How have you personally mastered the art of mindwandering and how has it enriched your life?
A/ Mindwandering is a wild beast with a mind of its own, no mortal can master it really. But being aware of this science and ideas can go a long way towards helping us gain some control over our mental lives. Mindwandering is a major activity in the brain. While it is not always welcomed—such as when we really need to accomplish something else or when it sends us ruminating and thus dampens our mood—in the right context it is a precious resource. We should not feel guilty when we catch ourselves wandering; it could be an inventive habit that is worth deliberately allocating time for. Once we do, we should get the most out of it.
Two examples of how we can make use of our wandering thoughts are through learning from simulated experiences and through semi-directed mindwandering.
A great deal of what we have in memory is a result of actual experience, but some of it is also the outcome of imagined experiences and simulated scenarios. My research into the possibility that our brain also stores memories of imagined experiences, although they have never taken place, started a while ago on a flight. I was reviewing a paper, and my mind drifted until it landed on the emergency door, which triggered the following simulation: what if the door suddenly opens while we are in the air? I will need a parachute. I could probably use the airplane blanket on my lap, but I will not be able to hold on to it in the strong wind—it needs holes. I can use my pen for making the holes, and so on. Far-fetched, funny every time, but nevertheless, I now have a script of an imagined experience stored in memory, and it would be helpful should the unlikely event ever take place.
In semi-directed mindwandering, while we cannot really tell our mind where to wander about, we can strive to fill the mental space of possibilities with content that we would have liked to be wandering about. Before I go on a long walk, I ask myself what is on my mind. If it is something like the bills I just paid or an annoying email, I try to replace it with something that I would rather be spending my mindwandering stretch on, such as re-reading a paragraph that caught my interest recently. Or I might revive the idea of an upcoming trip so that I can fine-tune the details as I simulate the future with my mind.