The Role of Mind Wandering in Education

It was a crisp spring morning in my high school English class as I took my seat near the window. At some point during class, I had noticed a flower blooming outside. My mind gently tracked away from the Grapes of Wrath discussion to the Biology lecture I had heard just hours before. Looking at that flower, I started thinking about the connection of water molecules in the plant, and then trailed off to think about the geometry of the flower pedals, reflecting on the formulas I had been learning all week in geometry class. Did all plants work this way? What about the ones at the bottom of the sea? Did it evolve to slightly differ, or was it a whole different cycle and geometry formula? My English teacher, realizing I had mentally drifted off and was daydreaming out the window, stopped her lecturing and asked me politely to join the rest of the class in paying attention. Getting caught daydreaming is not a rare occurrence by any means. Most of us can conjure embarrassing memories of being called out in meetings, virtual conference calls, and especially in school as youth for zoning off and away from the present moment. The act of daydreaming, more technically known as mind wandering in the cognitive sciences, is a pervasive phenomenon that happens across the lifespan and much throughout the day [1]. In fact, if research is to be believed, the odds are that your attention will drift away from this article, at least once, before you reach the end of it.

But don’t fret; mind wandering is not the anti-focus ailment to learning and mastery as it’s been cast to be. While using words like “caught” in reference to mind wandering suggest that we are doing something wrong or immoral, the new science of mind wandering has shed new light onto this phenomenon, shifting it from insidious villain to potential ally. This can come as a flooding relief, as up to an estimated 50% of our waking hours are spent mind wandering (whether we realize it or not [2]). The benefits of mind wandering are not to be ignored, especially in the context of education where they can provide unique and powerful learning opportunities for students. Consider the following.

New common core requirements, specifically in mathematics, are beginning to focus less on procedural knowledge and more on conceptual understanding. It’s essentially analogous to moving away from “do step 1, 2, 3” and more toward “why do we do step 1, then 2, then 3?” The focus then becomes getting students to think about overarching patterns and mathematical relationships at a higher level, as opposed to memorizing steps. This shift from concrete details to a higher-level of thinking is vital, but often difficult for students to achieve. As most mathematics courses are taught in a very traditional way [3] – one that emphasizes procedural knowledge over big-picture thinking – this can leave students with limited opportunities to develop the skill necessary to think about these concepts at a grander scale.

Coincidentally, big-picture thinking is exactly what mind wandering excels at. Eliciting a so-called “crucial mental state,” mind wandering allows the individual to think about ideas, things, and concepts from a big-picture perspective[4] and in so doing, creates remote associations to other ideas, things, and concepts. What can emerge is not only a stronger sense of conceptual understanding through the juxtaposition of other ideas, but the ability to use this information to solve problems. Specifically, the connection to remote ideas provides the individual with more resources and ideas to work with, resulting in more “out of the box” thinking. In math, this can mean better understanding and more flexibility in the application of mathematical concepts— the goal of mathematics education.

If your attention has remained unwavering thus far, you might be trying to reconcile how mind wandering about something like say, what to eat for dinner, actually helps with something like math flexibility. While it might be a safe assumption that when most of us give our conscious a break we do not immediately dwell on complex problems, our unconscious, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

Incubation, a stage of creativity that mind wandering has been shown to produce [5], is often used to describe the process of walking away from a complicated problem, just to come back later and solve it immediately. Famous anecdotes of incubation include everything from the mathematician Poincare’s breakthrough in Fuschian functions (which he came to on a geology excursion bus ride [6]) to James Crocker’s genius solution to solving the Hubble telescopes initially faulty mirror through corrective optics, or “telescope glasses” (this solution came to him in the shower [7]).

The reason incubation is so powerful at helping individuals solve problems is because of the way incubation utilizes cognitive mechanisms. During incubation, when the conscious shifts away from the task, it hands the problem over to the unconscious mind, which has been shown to have unique abilities at problem solving. In particular, incubation has shown to inhibit fixating cues that might lead us to miss the answer or a solution, and restructuring information differently [8]. Thus, when our conscious mind returns to the problem, it’s almost a different problem through our perspective, and one that is more easily solvable.

But incubation has also been shown to give us a leading edge when it comes to creativity. In one study [9], researchers asked participants to come up with creative names for a city starting with the letter “a”, a name for an Italian dish that ends in “i”, and come up with as many uses for a brick as possible. In one condition, participants worked for the entire time, in the second participants took a three minute break to consciously think about it half way through, and in the third condition participants did a boring task (known to illicit mind wandering) for 3 minutes halfway through. The results? Participants who were allowed to mind wander were significantly more creative in their generation of ideas than the other two groups. The suggested reasoning? Mind wandering facilitated incubation, which allowed unconscious processing to work on the name and brick task, and returned to the surface (so to speak) with more remote associations available.

If you are still convinced that mind wandering is nothing more than the brain taking a neurological nap when it’s tired of focusing, just look about the neurological underpinnings of mind wandering.  

When the human mind is at rest and not thinking about the outside world in the current moment, a network of the brain, known as the default mode network (DMN), becomes activated. This region is associated with thinking about the past or future, as well as thinking about other individuals and one’s self [10]. Alternatively, when the human mind is focused and working to complete a task, the executive system (ES) becomes activated. Tasks such as paying attention, organizing goals, and making decisions are associated with the ES. With the DMN handling more automatic states and the ES handling attentive states, these networks are thought to be on opposite sides of a teeter tauter. While one is activated, the other is not.

Except in mind wandering. Scientists found that both networks can be active during mind wandering, interpreted to mean that mind wandering is not just slipping focus, but a goal-oriented state [11]. Thus, researchers are now recognizing mind wandering as a phenomenon that isn’t a lack of focus, but as a cognitively-driven state that rolls around ideas at higher levels, promotes creativity, and aid with solving complex problems. So why are we condemning it in the classroom?

The culture of education needs to shift away from an obsession of attention toward one more encompassing of mind wandering. While it is true that individuals in mind wandering states tend to have less retention of information presented [12], this should not derail us from evolving our pedagogical practices. Mind wandering is a natural state, and happens whether we want it to or not, and whether we are conscious of it happening or not. Fighting mind wandering is a losing front, and our efforts would be much more effective if we learned to utilize mind wandering, instead of suppressing it.

So let’s slow down our obsession with attention and relax our disdain for distraction. When students begin to mind wander, let’s give them time to process, and make sure they have the resources necessary to recover any information they missed. We can do this easily by posting notes online, or recording lectures which can be reviewed later. Let’s also capitalize on the benefits by allowing for mind wandering breaks. After a big lecture or dropping a new complicated idea, providing students a few minute breaks to doodle, stare outside their window, or maybe as educators we can start talking about something really boring we know they will mind wander to. This brief break may reap substantial benefits demonstrated by incubation research. Allowing for these breaks can give students a much-needed mental break, and also help them to extract information at a higher level. If we expect students to graduate from high school with the ability to understand complex ideas at a higher level, be creative in their work, and solve the world’s most difficult problems, we need to get our heads out of the clouds and start focusing on mind wandering.