On the science of mind-wandering and how music can contribute to it

Our minds are travelling all the time: at work, in class, while commuting, even when making love (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). The urge to escape the present moment is so pressing that many of us decide to invest considerable amount of time and money in training our brains to mindfulness, in the hope of cracking the code to living a happier life and to working smarter. But is the mind’s tendency to detach from the “here and now” and to rest on a single thought only for a brief amount of time—what is commonly referred to as mind-wandering—inherently negative? In other words, is all mind-wandering bad and are there ways to overcome some of its negative aspects, such as distraction from a current activity, while preserving its positive sides? And how does music relate to the wandering mind?

The research field of mind-wandering has tremendously developed over the last decades, producing a surge of exciting findings that shed light on its nature, brain mechanisms and contents, pointing to how spontaneous thoughts are tightly entangled in well-being, learning and memory, task performance, emotion, and mental health. Despite the large amount of empirical research conducted on the topic and our intuitive grasp of what mind-wandering is, this still remains a poorly defined concept and researchers cannot agree on its exact definition (e.g., task-unrelated thought? unintentional thought? stimulus-independent thought? daydreams? mind-pops?). Two main approaches have recently emerged that make sense of the definitional haze surrounding this topic: some researchers underscore mind-wandering’s dynamic nature, while others consider it a multidimensional construct showing patterns of overlapping and non-overlapping features. Regardless of the conceptual model we are going to adopt as researchers, strengthening definitional accuracy and operationalisation of relevant features of mind-wandering (e.g., spontaneous or deliberate? task-related or -unrelated?) are imperative for pursuing effective and reliable empirical investigations.

A simple search in the ISI Web of Science database (using the keywords “mind-wandering” and “spontaneous cognition”) for records of mind-wandering research over the last decade (2008-2018) reveals an increasing interest on the subject. Adding to this search the keyword “default mode network” will drastically increase the total number of records found (up to 10,242), showing how the rise in mind-wandering research has been strongly supported by cognitive neuroscience.

What strikes me the most when talking about mind-wandering is the frequency with which these mental experiences occur: up to half of our waking time, which translates into ∼2,000 daydreams in a typical 16-hour day (over a total of 4,000 thoughts of all kinds per day). Based on these numbers, Fox and Beaty estimated that the output of a relatively active human mind over a period of 70 years would be around 50,000,000 spontaneous thoughts! These figures, of course, vary a lot across individuals (e.g., older adults report less mind-wandering than younger adults), clinical populations (e.g., mind-wandering episodes are more common in people with depression and ADHD), and interestingly also throughout the day (spontaneous thoughts occur at lower rates early in the day, rise until midday, and decline gradually before rising once more in the evening). However, what seems to make the difference for mental health and emotional well-being is the quality of mind-wandering episodes rather than merely their frequency. For example, thoughts focused on the future or rated as interesting lead to subsequent positive mood. Furthermore, narcissistic individuals exhibit self-related thoughts that are more positively-valenced and future-oriented, in line with the assumed grandiose, self-absorbed view of oneself in narcissism. Similarly, depressive individuals typically engage with ruminative, negatively-hued and past-oriented thoughts.

Mind-wandering has been traditionally investigated during experimental tasks that are cognitively demanding (for example, memory testing), resulting in being interpreted as a failure of focused attention and therefore highly detrimental in task performance. This has contributed to draw an image of an inherently negative mental phenomenon. Now, we know that whether or not mind-wandering is bad depends on a wide variety of factors (e.g., content, awareness of thoughts) and several studies have contributed to re-balance our perspectives on mind-wandering. There are in fact plenty of benefits. For instance, mind-wandering can make us more creative by stimulating incubation, which is the experience of shifting conscious attention away from a problem that requires our creative effort. There are many famous anecdotes linking creativity to activities that are conducive to mind-wandering, such as showering, driving, or dreaming (dreaming in particular can be seen as a less deliberately constrained version of the mind-wandering state). Another positive outcome of mind-wandering is improving personal goal-setting, and this can be linked to evolutionary perspectives that identify the adaptive value of mind-wandering in being an occasion to internally rehearse a problem. In other words, in the absence of an opportunity to act immediately on something, we continue this process at rest in our minds.

Now if mind-wandering has wonderful upsides such as augmenting creativity and goal-setting (how would we otherwise explain such a ubiquitous form of cognition if it was merely detrimental?), what tricks can we use to spur our minds to follow beneficial and “healthy” patterns of spontaneous cognition? What are the right circumstances under which a wandering mind may actually benefit us? Can music be used as a vehicle to steer our thoughts towards positive directions? Trying to answer these questions in any meaningful way is hampered by a lack of music studies on the subject. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that mind-wandering during listening to music is a widespread phenomenon, at least in the Western world where technology-aided listening experiences have become way more immersive and introspective. Visual mental imagery while listening to music is indeed common, and given that much mind-wandering takes the form of visual images this suggests an overall high frequency of the experience. Moreover, we all know how music can trigger us to mentally time travel to the past or the future and plenty of music playlists on Spotify or Last.fm are prepared with the aim of guiding cognition. Interestingly, there is evidence of a link between music, emotion and mind-wandering, with sad-sounding music being associated with higher levels of mind-wandering (as well as default mode network activity) compared with happy-sounding music. In the same study, we also explored the content of participants’ thoughts while listening to sad and happy music and we found out that thoughts during sad music were focused on emotion and nature, while happy music was linked to dancing imagery. These findings are particularly intriguing because they show how different music-evoked emotions relate to various dimensions of thought content, which, as mentioned above, is crucial in determining the impact of mind-wandering on well-being and mental health. 

Despite the paucity of music studies on mind-wandering, music may hold an extraordinary potential to further the missions of mind-wandering research, by offering a “positive” space for the mind to wander that does not demand continuous attention and is relatively free from boredom (typical features of previous research paradigms). Most importantly, the possibility of understanding how to purposely use music to think in “healthy” patterns is pivotal and should strive researchers—at least it does it in my personal case—to look at this topic! Vice versa mind-wandering research may significantly contribute to the understanding of complex musical experiences. From the past decades of music research, we have learned that the human capacity for music is not detached from the rest of the mind, and musical experiences may at times be so powerful, yet complex, because music can fully engage our brains. Mind-wandering during music listening may represent in fact a key piece of this puzzle. The science of mind-wandering will be precious in unveiling what kinds of cognitive phenomena are at play during music listening (e.g., spontaneous thoughts, daydreams or fanciful thoughts that depart from reality, autobiographical memories), how they interact with each other, and what characteristics they have in common.

If you are particularly interested with this topic, you can discover more here. Stay tuned for future research updates!

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