Thinking is not something you do. Most of the time it is something that happens to you. Cutting-edge research on the phenomenon of Mind Wandering now clearly shows how almost all of us, for more than two thirds of their conscious lifetime, are not in control of their conscious thought processes…The sudden loss of inner autonomy—which all of us experience many hundred times every day—seems to be based on a cyclically recurring process in the brain. The ebb and flow of autonomy and meta-awareness might well be a kind of attentional see-sawing between our inner and outer worlds, caused by a constant competition between the brain networks underlying spontaneous subpersonal thinking and goal-oriented cognition.
Interestingly, the neural correlate of non-autonomous conscious thought overlaps to a considerable degree with ongoing activity in what neuroscientists call the "default mode network". I think that one global function of Mind Wandering may be "autobiographical self-model maintenance". Mind Wandering creates an adaptive form of self-deception, namely, an illusion of personal identity across time. It helps to maintain a fictional "self" that then lays the foundation for important achievements like reward prediction or delay discounting. As a philosopher, my conceptual point is that only if an organism simulates itself as being one and the same across time will it be able to represent reward events or the achievement of goals as a fulfillment of its own goals, as happening to the same entity. I like to call this the "Principle of Virtual Identity Formation": Many higher forms of intelligence and adaptive behavior, including risk management, moral cognition and cooperative social behavior, functionally presuppose a self-model that portrays the organism as a single entity that endures over time. Because we are really only cognitive systems, complex processes without any precise identity criteria, the formation of an (illusory) identity across time can only be achieved on a virtual level, for example through the creation of an automatic narrative. This could be the more fundamental and overarching computational goal of mind wandering, and one it may share with dreaming. If I am right, the default mode of the autobiographical self-modeling constructs a domain-general functional platform enabling long-term motivation and future planning.
Mental autonomy (and how it can be improved) will be one of the hottest topics for the future. There is even a deep link between mental and political autonomy—you cannot sustain one without the other. Because there are not only bodily actions, but also mental actions, autonomy has to do with freedom—and in one of the deepest and most fundamental senses of the word. But the ability to act autonomously implies not only reasons, arguments and rationality. Much more fundamentally it refers to the capacity to wilfully inhibit, suspend, or terminate our own actions—bodily, socially, or mentally. The breakdown of this ability is what we call Mind Wandering.