How do you understand mind wandering?

  • How do you understand mind wandering?

    Posted by Don Salmon on April 8, 2023 at 2:42 pm

    Before writing too much on this, I’m going to wait to see if anybody is interested in this topic. I’ll be making videos about it for my YouTube channel and website.

    Meanwhile, you can probably in about 10 minutes of intelligent introspection learn as much if not more about it than the cognitive neuroscientist, Moshe Bar, has written about in his book on mind wandering.

    You can start by asking yourself these questions:

    How focused or unfocused is your mind when it wanders?

    Is it mostly negative or positive?

    Does mind wandering foster creativity?

    What is the relationship between mind wandering and mindfulness?

    Is mindfulness, as taught today, a genuine or even valid form of meditation?

    What is the purpose of mind wandering or mindfulness?

    Is there a “purpose” to life?

    Are those who say the evolution of consciousness is the purpose of life simply unscientific or does science have perhaps something to learn?

    Don Salmon replied 1 year ago 2 Members · 2 Replies
  • 2 Replies
  • Paul

    May 9, 2023 at 1:07 am

    Hi Don

    Late to the party here.


    My mind is completely unfocussed when it wanders. When I consider what it is, I find myself concluding that it is a state of receptiveness. This doesn’t seem to be bound to current experience of the moment (although that often happens) and might include past experiences or imagined future events.

    If there is worry or anxiety I find I switch to focussed thought which often includes self talk and my mind ceases to wander.


    It can be either of these things. If I have intrusive, anxious thoughts or feelings it is negative but this is self-limiting as it ‘pops the bubble’ of wandering into something that runs on rails, usually with definite goals in mind.


    It is a definite feature of an open mindset and one I seem to automatically switch to when I am writing or playing music.


    I am not sure that I engage in mindfulness as such. Certainly not intentional mindfulness. But there are many times in a day when I step back and consider something more fundamentally that I might otherwise. This tends not to be routine things like driving or unlocking a door but would include really tasting something I am cooking and wondering at the flavours and whether they can be improved. When I am playing music, I will listen intently and openly to the timbre of notes and to the sensations in my hands as I play. If I have no clear objective (fixing a part or practising a piece) I will improvise. At the moment I am trying without much success to sing what I play as I play it.

    Is Mindfulness Valid?

    I am not a practitioner of mindfulness but I have studied it in the past. From what I know I would say that it is simply guidance to a mindset that I use all the time for the most important things I do every day. By the most important, I don’t mean the most material but actually the opposite of this- the more ephemeral, hard to define things: helping my partner or my son at a difficult time, playing music, listening to music, writing and sometimes thinking, often about philosophy and mind.

    I think therefore that it is valid if this is what it achieves. It occurs to me I am fortunate to have enough time for these states of mind at the moment. It has definitely been otherwise in the past. I can imagine being caught up in the exigencies of a professional or work environment in which I must concentrate solely upon matters arising therein to the exclusion of this. Making time with intention for these states of mind would likely be necessary and welcome under these conditions.

    The Purposes of Mind Wandering and Mindfulness

    This is a tricky thing to consider from my perspective. I am defining Mind Wandering as unintentional, undirected internal experience. If it had a purpose, then I wonder if it might drift into unwandering, goal-directed activity.

    I am defining mindfulness as attempting to evoke the same mindset present during mind wandering with the objective of at experiencing with at least some frequency. I would se the role of mindfulness as ‘kick starting’ the mindset by providing a focus (usually a stimulus or experience to be attended to) and from where the mind can wander.

    However, I am aware that in the training I have undertaken sometimes direction is given to remaining focussed on the target experience and I do think this might militate against my answer to the question above. On the other hand some of the training was more open ended and self guided which would support my conclusion.

    The Purpose of Life

    Short answer: I don’t know.

    Long answer: Inherent here is the supposition that the question can be answered. This is a bit of a paradox: If there is a purpose to life then, rationally, that purpose should be obvious and it is clearly not obvious because we ask the question.

    It seems to me one logical issue here is time. When we remove the future from being, we still exist in this moment. And further, to define a purpose to being would intrinsically involve defining a future state in which the purpose was regarded as met, unless we meet the purpose already by simply being. So I suppose the question that arises here is, is time fundamental or it is a construct, in other words can we really separate time and existence? Can we exist in this moment without a future?

    My instinct (and I can’t really justify this) is that time is a construct, Now it may be a construct fundamental to consciousness. In other words, one cannot exist without the other.

    Now that really would be a paradox, wouldn’t it?

    Finally though I think that really it is ‘purpose’ that is the important construct in the question (rather than the implied construct of time). I tend to the idea that purposes depend on the separation of objects. It is language and associated perceptions that gives rise to the idea of separate objects via naming and categorisation.

    But this is just an instinct I think.

    So, these are the best answers I can muster Don. I hope you find them useful.

    • Don Salmon

      May 9, 2023 at 12:32 pm

      Thanks Paul, helpful and much appreciated.

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