Is mind-wandering the same as being on “autopilot,” without being conscious of what you are doing? There seem to be differing perspectives on this question.
We’ve probably all had this experience: You are engaged in a task, simple or complex, and suddenly you are aware that you are not present, and your mind has wandered. You think about something in the past or the future. Or you think about being attracted to a “shiny object” in some form.
Does this “mind-wandering” serve a purpose, and is it bad for us? Or are there some beneficial aspects to it?
Psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, concluded that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. In the research, entitled “A Human Mind is a Wandering Mind, and a Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert argue: “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
To track this behavior, Killingsworth developed an iPhone web app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant. Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television. On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of the time, and no less than 30 percent of the time during every activity except making love.