When writing a song or a piece of prose, I often choose to let my mind wander, hoping the muse will strike. If it does, it not only moves my work along but feels great, too!
That’s why I was troubled by studies that found an association between mind-wandering and problems like unhappiness and depression—and even a shorter life expectancy. This research suggests that focusing one’s thoughts on the present moment is linked to well-being, while spacing out—which I personally love to do—is not.
Now, new studies are bringing nuance to this science. Whether or not mind-wandering is a negative depends on a lot of factors—like whether it’s purposeful or spontaneous, the content of your musings, and what kind of mood you are in. In some cases, a wandering mind can lead to creativity, better moods, greater productivity, and more concrete goals.
Here is what some recent research says about the upsides of a meandering mind.
Mind-wandering can make you more creative
It’s probably not a big surprise that mind-wandering augments creativity—particularly “divergent thinking,” or being able to come up with novel ideas.
In one study, researchers gave participants a creativity test called the Unusual Uses Task that asks you to dream up novel uses for an everyday item, like a paperclip or a newspaper. Between the first and second stages, participants either engaged in an undemanding task to encourage mind-wandering or a demanding task that took all of their concentration; or they were given a resting period or no rest. Those participants who engaged in mind-wandering during the undemanding task improved their performance much more than any of the other groups. Taking their focus off of the task and mind-wandering, instead, were critical to success.
“The findings reported here provide arguably the most direct evidence to date that conditions that favor mind-wandering also enhance creativity,” write the authors. In fact, they add, mind-wandering may “serve as a foundation for creative inspiration.”
As a more recent study found, mind-wandering improved people’s creativity above and beyond the positive effects of their reading ability or fluid intelligence, the general ability to solve problems or puzzles.
Mind-wandering seems to involve the default network of the brain, which is known to be active when we are not engaged directly in tasks and is also related to creativity.
So perhaps I’m right to let my focus wander while writing: It helps my mind put together information in novel and potentially compelling ways without my realizing it. It’s no wonder that my best inspirations seem to come when I’m in the shower or hiking for miles on end.
Mind-wandering can make you happier…depending on the content
The relationship between mind-wandering and mood may be more complicated than we thought.
In one study, researchers pinged participants on a regular basis to see what they were doing, whether or not their minds were wandering, and how they were feeling. As in an earlier experiment, people tended to be in a negative mood when they were mind-wandering. But when researchers examined the content of people’s thoughts during mind-wandering, they found an interesting caveat: If participants’ minds were engaged in interesting, off-task musings, their moods became more positive rather than more negative.
As the authors conclude, “Those of us who regularly find our minds in the clouds—musing about the topics that most engage us—can take solace in knowing that at least this form of mind-wandering is associated with elevated mood.”
It may be that mood affects mind-wandering more than the other way around. In a similar study, researchers concluded that feeling sad or being in a bad mood tended to lead to unhappy mind-wandering, but that mind-wandering itself didn’t lead to later bad moods. Earlier experiments may have conflated mind-wandering with rumination—an unhealthy preoccupation with past failures that is tied to depression.
“This study suggests that mind-wandering is not something that is inherently bad for our happiness,” write the authors. Instead, “Sadness is likely to lead the mind to wander and that mind-wandering is likely to be [emotionally] negative.”
A review of the research on mind-wandering came to a similar conclusion: Mind-wandering is distinct from rumination and therefore has a different relationship to mood.
Can we actually direct our mind-wandering toward more positive thoughts and away from rumination? It turns out that we can! One study found that people who engaged in compassion-focused meditation practices had more positive mind-wandering. As an added bonus, people with more positive mind-wandering were also more caring toward themselves and others, which itself is tied to happiness.
Mind-wandering may improve job performance
Taking a break from work can be a good thing—perhaps because our minds are freer to wander.
Mind-wandering is particularly useful when work is mind-numbing. In one study, participants reported on their mind-wandering during a repetitive task. Participants who engaged in more mind-wandering performed better and faster, decreasing their response times significantly. The researchers speculated that mind-wandering allowed people to go off-task briefly, reset, and see data with fresh eyes—so that they didn’t miss sudden changes.
In another study, researchers aimed to figure out what parts of the brain were implicated in mind-wandering and discovered something unexpected. When their frontal lobes were stimulated with a small electrical current to boost mind-wandering, people’s performance on an attention task slightly improved.
Of course, not every job calls for mind-wandering. A surgeon or a driver should stay focused on the task at hand, since mind-wandering could be detrimental to both. On the other hand, even for them it might be rejuvenating to take a mind-wandering break after their workday is over, leading to more focused attention the next time around.
Mind-wandering may help us with goal-setting
It seems like mind-wandering would be detrimental when it comes to planning for the future. In fact, some research suggests mind-wandering can improve goal-setting.
In a recent neuroscience experiment, participants did an undemanding task and reported on the content of their thoughts as researchers scanned their brains with fMRI. Afterwards, they wrote for 15 minutes about personal goals or TV programs (the control group). Then, they repeated these two tasks—the undemanding one and writing about goals or TV.
Analyzers unaware of the study’s purpose were asked to assess the concreteness of participants’ goal-setting and TV program descriptions. The result? People with wandering minds—who probably started musing about what they really wanted in life after the first writing session—ultimately came up with more concrete and higher-quality goal descriptions in the second session. Over the course of the experiment, their brains also showed an increase in connectivity between the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex—areas implicated in goal-setting.
Research has also found that, the more people engage in mind-wandering during a task, the more they are willing to wait for a reward afterwards. According to the researchers, this suggests that mind-wandering helps delay gratification and “engages processes associated with the successful management of long-term goals.”
On the other hand, some research suggests mind-wandering makes us less “gritty”—or less able to stay focused on our goals to completion—especially if it is spontaneous rather than deliberate. So, it may be important to consider where you are in the process of goal creation before deciding mind-wandering would be a good idea.
None of this suggests that mind-wandering is better for us than being focused. More likely, both aspects of cognition serve a purpose. Under the right circumstances, a wandering mind may actually benefit us and possibly those around us. The trick is to know when to set your mind free.
— Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine. Based at UC-Berkeley, Greater Good highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism. Copyright Greater Good.