Don’t Stop Daydreaming: Why a Wandering Mind Is Good for You

If you can’t get through this article without checking your Facebook, walking to the fridge, scrolling through your phone, and choosing something on Netflix, don’t worry.

03.03.15 3:17 AM ET

I am one of those people who will be unlikely to finish writing this paragraph without checking my Twitter account, staring out the window blankly, changing my mind about what to have for dinner, and mentally rewriting what I will say three paragraphs from now. Once I ordered a book called Mindfulness to try to conquer my eruptive mind. I eagerly tore open the cardboard package, only to realize that I had bought the book several months before and forgotten about it.

According to many studies, mind-wandering saps our attention and makes us worse at performing a given task. Unsurprisingly, science supports the intuitive notion that it’s a bad idea to fantasize about snuggling with a warm, squirmy dachshund while operating heavy machinery. Much more tenuous data show that mind-wandering makes us unhappy, although that may have something more with what our mind wanders to—and our frustration with our poor performance at the task at hand.

For my fellow daydreamers, however, who only experience “flow” when floating down a river, there is some consolation. Other studies show that when our minds wander, we may be doing our planning and perhaps having creative moments.

In a new study, researchers at the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel were actually able, for the first time in a laboratory setting, to cause subjects’ minds to wander. When they applied transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to the frontal lobes of subjects’ brains, the tendency to mind-wander increased (my mind reels, jumps, and shimmies at the thought of increased mind-wandering).

“Just think about it, mind wandering is something very personal and individual. A person himself or herself does not know when and how she starts to mind wander,” Vadim Axelrod, lead researcher of the study, wrote in an email. “Here, by using electrical current, we temporarily changed something in the brain circuitry in such a way that a person decided to mind-wander more. And all this happened unconsciously because subjects did not feel that they were stimulated.”

“We also showed that performance on external task also increased. The result was not significant, but the trend was clear in all experiments,” Axelrod continued, noting how his study differed from most other studies that show that mind-wandering detracts from task performance. The best explanation for the difference in his study, he suggested, was that we use the same cognitive systems for attention to external activities, such as driving or cooking a meal, that we do for mind-wandering.

“I don’t think that mind wandering is inherently good or bad, although several theorists have argued pretty convincingly that we do it so much that it’s unlikely to be overwhelmingly costly and perhaps likely to be quite beneficial—whether for personal problem solving, planning for the future, imagining life’s possibilities, or simply escaping the realities of the here-and-now,” Michael Kane, a professor of psychology at University of North Carolina, Greensboro, told me via email. Kane’s research includes mind-wandering.

“Some ongoing activities are so cognitively demanding, or have such dire consequences when errors occur, that most people would agree that mind wandering should be avoided at all costs—think about auto racing or brain surgery,” Kane pointed out. “In thinking about the costs and benefits of mind wandering, though, we really have to take the perspective of the actor or thinker. For a given person at a given time, it may be much more important to think through a personal concern, mentally rehearse an argument, or solve a creative problem, than it is to perform their ongoing task perfectly.”

Axelrod agreed with Kane (and all my irritated elementary school teachers) that there are situations where mind-wandering is inappropriate or downright dangerous. Axelrod also thought, perhaps more emphatically than Kane, that there were times and places where mind-wandering could be beneficial. “I think that when the situation is appropriate—for example, not during exam or intensive traffic while driving—mind-wandering is important and beneficial,” he said. “To this extent, modern technologies decrease the amount of time people mind-wander because people always have a gadget to play with, instead of being with their own thoughts. Just look what passengers in the buses are doing.”

Axelrod is excited about the possibilities indicated by his research. “First, it might be interesting to combine tDCS stimulation with fMRI, so that we can see more directly and precisely what regions in the frontal lobes were influence using tDCS,” he said. “Second, it is interesting to test whether tDCS stimulation can not only enhance mind-wandering, but also to improve creativity and future planning. So, probably, one future day by applying tDCS we will be able to solve the problems that could not be solved before!”