One way to demonstrate that intentional and unintentional mind wandering are distinct experiences, the researchers found, was to examine how these types of mind wandering vary depending on the demands of a task.
In one study, Seli and colleagues had participants complete a sustained-attention task that varied in terms of difficulty. Participants were instructed to press a button each time they saw certain target numbers on a screen (i.e., the digits 1-2 and 4-9) and to withhold responding to a non-target digit (i.e., the digit 3). Half of the participants completed an easy version of this task in which the numbers appeared in sequential order, and the other half completed a difficult version where the numbers appeared in a random order.
“We presented thought probes throughout the tasks to determine whether participants were mind wandering, and more critically, whether any mind wandering they did experience occurred with or without intention,” Seli said. “The idea was that, given that the easy task was sufficiently easy, people should be afforded the opportunity to intentionally disengage from the task in the service of mind wandering, which might allow them to plan future events, problem-solve, and so forth, without having their performance suffer.
“So, what we would expect to observe, and what we did in fact observe, was that participants completing the easy version of the task reported more intentional mind wandering than those completing the difficult version. Not only did this result clearly indicate that a much of the mind wandering occurring in the laboratory is engaged with intention, but it also showed that intentional and unintentional mind wandering appear to behave differently, and that their causes likely differ.”
The findings add to past research raising questions on whether mind wandering might in some cases be beneficial.
“Taking the view that mind wandering is always bad, I think, is inappropriate,” Seli said. “I think it really comes down the context that one is in. For example, if an individual finds herself in a context in which she can afford to mind-wander without incurring performance costs — for example, if she is completing a really easy task that requires little in the way of attention — then it would seem that mind wandering in such a context would actually be quite beneficial as doing so would allow the individual to entertain other, potentially important, thoughts while concurrently performing well on her more focal task.
“Also, there is research showing that taking breaks during demanding tasks can actually improve task performance, so there remains the possibility that it might be beneficial for people to intermittently deliberately disengage from their tasks, mind-wander for a bit, and then return to the task with a feeling of cognitive rejuvenation.”