This metatheoretical paper investigates mind wandering from the perspective of philosophy of mind. It has two central claims. The first is that, on a conceptual level, mind wandering can be fruitfully described as a specific form of mental autonomy loss. The second is that, given empirical constraints, most of what we call “conscious thought” is better analyzed as a subpersonal process that more often than not lacks crucial properties traditionally taken to be the hallmark of personal-level cognition - such as mental agency, explicit, consciously experienced goal-directedness, or availability for veto control. I claim that for roughly two thirds of our conscious life-time we do not possess mental autonomy (M-autonomy) in this sense. Empirical data from research on mind wandering and nocturnal dreaming clearly show that phenomenally represented cognitive processing is mostly an automatic, non-agentive process and that personal-level cognition is an exception rather than the rule. This raises an interesting new version of the mind-body problem: How is subpersonal cognition causally related to personal-level thought? More fine-grained phenomenological descriptions for what we called “conscious thought” in the past are needed, as well as a functional decomposition of umbrella terms like “mind wandering” into different target phenomena and a better understanding of the frequent dynamic transitions between spontaneous, task-unrelated thought and meta-awareness. In an attempt to lay some very first conceptual foundations for the now burgeoning field of research on mind wandering, the third section proposes two new criteria for individuating single episodes of mind-wandering, namely, the “self-representational blink” (SRB) and a sudden shift in the phenomenological “unit of identification” (UI). I close by specifying a list of potentially innovative research goals that could serve to establish a stronger connection between mind wandering research and philosophy of mind.And, from the text:
Mind Wandering as a Switch in the Unit of Identification
Let us look at a second phenomenological feature of mind wandering that could, if correctly described, yield a new theoretical perspective. Perhaps the most interesting phenomenological feature of mind wandering is a sudden shift in the UI (phenomenal unit of identification). The UI is the phenomenal property with which we currently identify, exactly the form of currently active conscious content that generates the subjective experience of “I am this!” Please note how many mind wandering episodes are phenomenologically disembodied states, because perceptual decoupling often also means decoupling from current body perception...
The Re-Appearance of Meta-Awareness
How exactly does an episode of mind wandering end? Schooler and colleagues, referring to work by the late Daniel Wegner, point out that regaining meta-awareness may be accompanied by an illusion of control...“I have just regained meta-awareness, because I just introspectively realized that I was lost in mind wandering!”
Because mindfulness and mind wandering are opposing constructs, the process of losing and regaining meta-awareness can be most closely studied in different stages of classical mindfulness meditation. In the early stages of object-oriented meditation, there will typically be cyclically recurring losses of mental autonomy, plus an equally recurring mental action, namely the decision to gently, but firmly bring the focus of attention back to the formal object of meditation, for example to interoceptive sensations associated with the respiratory process. Here, the phenomenology will often be one of mental agency, goal directedness, and a mild sense of effort. In advanced stages of open monitoring meditation, however, the aperture of attention has gradually widened, typically resulting in an effortless and choiceless awareness of the present moment as a whole. Such forms of stable meta-awareness may now be described as shifts to as state without a UI. Whereas in beginning stages of object-oriented mindfulness practice, the meditator identifies with an internal model of a mental agent directed at a certain goal-state (“the meditative self”), meta-awareness of the second kind is typically described as having an effortless and non-agentive quality. Interestingly, the neural correlates pertaining to this difference between “trying to meditate” and meditation are now beginning to emerge (Garrison et al., 2013, graphic from this paper is in my Upstairs/Downstairs web lecture).