In an article in the journal Frontiers In Psychology, Jonathan Smallwood from the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany and Jessica Andrews-Hanna from the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado in Boulder, USA review studies on the costs and benefits of mind-wandering and come to the conclusion that so-called self-generated thought is not always negative. In general, they state in their article, the neurons in our brains are permanently active, even when we are resting. Thus, even when we do not experience any mental activity in the sense that our mind is generating thoughts, our neurons are constantly firing. Thus, activity is normal for our brain (we reported on this in our post “Our restless brain“).
From a cognitive perspective, planning the future requires our minds to leave the present moment. Such forward planning means that we decide not to respond to our present self’s needs for the benefit of our future self. For example, rather often it is necessary to deny oneself an immediate reward – called delay of gratification. We know that this ability is an important predictor for leading a successful life. However, this is only possible when we allow our minds to wander into the future and imagine our future self. Likewise, imagination and thus self-generated thought is important for creativity, as Smallwood and Andrews-Hanna point out.
Furthermore, they make clear that when considering the benefits and disadvantages of mind-wandering, one needs to take the situation into account: there are moments in which it is crucial to be in the present moment, such as when driving a car on a very busy road, but there are other situations in which it is helpful to let the mind wander in order to plan the future or solve a creative task. Mind-wandering in situations in which it is appropriate is associated with better working memory, higher creativity, and choices in favour of the future self. Finally, one also needs to take into consideration the content to which our minds wander – is it for example rumination or planning of the future?
Thus, mind-wandering may be beneficial and detrimental to our well-being, depending on the situation and the contents of the thoughts the mind wanders to.