A Japanese study by Takahiro Sekiguchi of Tokyo Gakugei University has shown a link between creative thinking and mind wandering or daydreaming as we more often call it.
Mind wandering refers to the situation where your mind drifts away from what you are doing or thinking at present and becomes filled with other thoughts that are not related to the task at hand.
In the last two decades, there has been a rise in research on daydreaming in the fields of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. A likely reason for this is a growing interest in the study of involuntary cognition. Daydreaming due to its pervasive nature (as we all know) is the most common occurrence of this aspect.
How the Mind Wandering Study was Planned
Studies in the past have shown that mind wandering influences various behaviours with both positive and negative consequences.
The Japanese study focused on how Epistemic Curiosity, which is the desire to learn new things and gain insights, and anxiety promote instances of daydreaming. Epistemic Curiosity is motivated by a genuine interest in learning and discovery, or curiosity. Anxiety is the negative factor that causes daydreaming.
The study tried to see how these traits might predict the tendency toward mind wandering based on an individual difference approach. The study was comprised of two smaller studies. The first one measured mind wandering using a self-report questionnaire. The second study comprised an online behavioural task which used content to understand how the participants thought.
Intentional and unintentional mind wandering were reported separately in the study. Epistemic Curiosity was measured using questionnaires that assessed Diversive and Specific Curiosity. The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory Scale was used to measure trait anxiety while the Effortful Control Scale was used to measure executive control.
Diversive Curiosity is the Key
The researcher used Structural Equation Modelling (a multivariate statistical analysis technique used to analyse structural relationships) which showed that Diversive Curiosity positively predicted both intentional and unintentional mind wandering tendencies, whereas Specific Curiosity did not predict either of these two types.
The study also considered the mediating role of executive control processes in the relationship between trait anxiety and mind wandering. It showed that anxiety was not directly related to your daydreaming but was rather indirectly related to it through executive control, which affected only the unintentional but not the intentional mind wandering.
In other words, if you have strong self-control, you will likely not daydream unless you choose to. Individuals with lower executive control, as often seen in those with higher trait anxiety, are more prone to unintentional daydreaming. This interplay of traits provided a nuanced understanding of the factors contributing to mind wandering.
Executive Control Processes and Mind Wandering
The executive control processes play a significant role in preventing daydreaming during tasks. These processes are the guardians of attention. They help maintain focus on the ongoing task and suppress wandering thoughts. It was no surprise that individuals with lower executive control are more susceptible to daydreaming.
What this means is that a curious person interested in diverse things usually will have both intentional and unintentional mind wandering, but if they are looking at something specific, their mind usually will keep its focus on the task at hand and not go off on a stroll on its own. In addition, being in control of their thoughts impaired the respondents’ unintentional daydreaming but not their intentional mind wandering if they so wished.
Mind Wandering is Influenced by Epistemic Curiosity
These findings indicated that daydreaming is based on Epistemic Curiosity (the desire to learn new things), which is a socially desirable personality trait. Mind wandering occurs when the motivation for thoughts unrelated to the task increases, partly due to a high level of Diversive Curiosity. These thoughts occur intentionally or when you do not suppress them with your self-control.
All of this means that if you are a curious person you will daydream more. If you are in control of your thoughts during a particular time, you will likely daydream only if you want to at that time.
The Take Away
The study challenges the narrative that daydreaming is solely associated with negative traits. Instead, it highlights the role of Epistemic Curiosity, a socially desirable personality trait, in the occurrence of mind wandering. Diversive Curiosity, in particular, emerges as a driving force, leading individuals toward intentional or unintentional mind wandering by enhancing the motivation for task-unrelated thoughts.
This research challenges preconceptions, offering a more holistic understanding of the factors influencing mind wandering. As science tries to understand the mysteries of the mind, this study helps us appreciate the curious interplay between traits and tendencies that shape our cognitive experiences.
Therefore, the next time, someone tells you: ‘A Wandering Mind is An Unhappy Mind’, laugh out loud in their faces and send them the link to this article.
Takahiro Sekiguchi, Curiosity makes your mind wander: Effects of epistemic curiosity and trait anxiety on mind wandering, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 204, 2023, 112069, ISSN 0191-8869, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2022.112069.