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Annu Rev Psychol. 2015 Jan 3;66:487-518. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015331. Epub 2014 Sep 29.

The science of mind wandering: empirically navigating the stream of consciousness.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology, The University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD United Kingdom; email: jonny.smallwood@york.ac.uk.

Abstract

Conscious experience is fluid; it rarely remains on one topic for an extended period without deviation. Its dynamic nature is illustrated by the experience of mind wandering, in which attention switches from a current task to unrelated thoughts and feelings. Studies exploring the phenomenology of mind wandering highlight the importance of its content and relation to meta-cognition in determining its functional outcomes. Examination of the information-processing demands of the mind-wandering state suggests that it involves perceptual decoupling to escape the constraints of the moment, its content arises from episodic and affective processes, and its regulation relies on executive control. Mind wandering also involves a complex balance of costs and benefits: Its association with various kinds of error underlines its cost, whereas its relationship to creativity and future planning suggest its potential value. Although essential to the stream of consciousness, various strategies may minimize the downsides of mind wandering while maintaining its productive aspects.

KEYWORDS:

default mode network; mental time travel; meta-awareness; mind wandering; perceptual decoupling; self-generated thought

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