Mind Wandering: A New Personal Intelligence Perspective

Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American

Once accused of being absent-minded, the founder of American Psychology, William James, quipped that he was really just present-minded to his own thoughts.

Most recent studies depict mind wandering as a costly cognitive failure with relatively few benefits (Mooneyham and Schooler, 2013). This perspective makes sense when mind wandering is observed by a third party and when costs are measured against externally imposed standards such as speed or accuracy of processing, reading fluency or comprehension, sustained attention, and other external metrics.

There is, however, another way of looking at mind wandering, a personal perspective, if you will. For the individual, mind wandering offers the possibility of very real, personal reward, some immediate, some more distant.

These rewards include self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion (Singer and Schonbar, 1961; Singer, 1964b; Singer, 1966, 1974, 1975, 1993, 2009; Wang et al., 2009; Baars, 2010; Baird et al., 2011, 2012; Kaufman and Singer, 2011; Stawarczyk et al., 2011; Immordino-Yang et al., 2012; Kaufman, 2013).

From this personal perspective, it is much easier to understand why people are drawn to mind wandering and willing to invest nearly 50% of their waking hours engaged in it.

We mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event.

Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp, is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us finally to understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.

Some recent studies (Baird et al., 2011, 2012; Smallwood et al., 2011b; Immordino-Yang etal., 2012) have provided glimpses of how mind wandering or “constructive, internal reflection” (Immordino-Yangetal.,2012) might benefit the individual, but we are just beginning to scratch the surface. To gain a fuller understanding of the benefits of positive constructive daydreaming we need to apply tools and metrics (as in Klinger et al., 1980; Hoelscher et al., 1981; Nikles et al., 1998; Cox and Klinger, 2011; Klinger and Cox, 2011) that enable us identify the personally meaningful goals, aspirations, and dreams of individuals and determine how mind wandering supports or undermines those goals. Given the highly personal nature of mind wandering, we need a new focus and new metrics.

Personal Intelligence

Intelligence theories provide an interesting parallel. Traditional theories of intelligence emphasize cognitive control, deliberate planning, and decontextualized problem solving as the essence of human intelligence (Kaufman, 2011). This is largely due to the purpose of the first intelligence test: to identify students in need of alternative education. Because intelligence tests were designed to predict school grades, the tests were intentionally designed to measure the ability to profit from explicit instruction, concentrate on an external goal, and engage in abstract reasoning. Therefore it should come as no surprise that IQ test performance is strongly associated with activation of the executive attention brain network (e.g., Jung and Haier, 2007; Barbey et al., 2012)...

While the cognitive functions measured on traditional metrics of intelligence are undoubtedly important contributors to intellectual functioning, they are mostly decontextualized. Rarely are the test takers allowed to dip into their inner stream of consciousness and produce an original response that incorporates self-relevant information.

To help correct this imbalance in the literature, I recently proposed the Theory of Personal Intelligence. According to the theory, intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and ability over an extended period of time in pursuit of personal goals (Kaufman, 2013). The emphasis is adaptation to task demands that are relevant to attaining one’s personal goals, not just adaptation to the external goals dictated by educators and experimental psychologists.

Therefore, the theory takes into account an individual’s personal goals, and considers both controlled forms of cognition (e.g., working memory, attentional focus, etc.) and spontaneous forms of cognition (e.g., intuition, affect, insight, implicit learning, latent inhibition, and the spontaneous triggering of episodic memories and declarative knowledge) are important potential contributors to that personal adaptation.

This broadened conceptualization of human intelligence is in line with the plethora of research on the adaptive value of positive constructive daydreaming (see Jerome L. Singer’s seminal research– e.g., Singer, 1964b, 1966, 1974, 1975, 2009). When daydreaming, the contents of consciousness tend to be focused on upcoming personally meaningful events, indicating that they may play a role in autobiographical planning (Smallwood et al., 2009b; Morsella et al., 2010). In particular, Klinger (1999) showed that people’s daydreams and night dreams reflect “current concerns” ranging from constant thought of incomplete tasks to unresolved desires, ranging from sexual and social strivings to altruistic or revenge urges and the panoply of human motivations...

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