“Our mind tends to wander.”

-William James (1908)

“His mind tends to wander, but it’s too weak to get very far.”

From an otherwise forgotten old Lewis and Martin Film

My mind – more precisely, my train of thought – wanders a lot. Indeed, I think it is the natural state of consciousness when the environment releases its grip on one’s attention. I think I mean two things by mind wandering. One sense of mind wandering is that it seems quite disconnected from concurrent actions. One thinks of attention wandering away from some task at hand. This sort of mind wandering certainly can be the source of action errors and, sometimes, serious accidents. Indeed, these risks and costs are what we consider most important about mind-wander. Yet my body generally does quite well without my mind, that is, my conscious attention. This raises an interesting question: If this is so why is conscious attention important at all?

A second sense of mind-wandering is that one’s train of thought seems aimless. It seems that without the environment, and, more specifically, some task to accomplish in that environment, to “discipline” one’s thinking, one’s attention lurches along through a series of associative spasms.

Conversations do wander rather seriously as well. One of the major tasks of the chair of any meeting is to keep the participants on task.

Internally directed thought (i.e., toward some goal) actually seems to require special training or external thought prostheses such as note pads, word processors, and the like. Thus, it seems we need to arrange the environment in special ways to support the internal plan. We need an external loop in our thinking. This may be part of the benefit of incorporating others into our thinking processes through dialogue. It is perhaps not just the ideas that others have, but simply that they constitute an external anchor to keep thing from wandering too far from the consciously agreed upon purposes. Of course, in spite of the most carefully arranged external prostheses, social or physical, our minds will wander.


Yet, mind and conversational wandering should not surprise us because, although it is a reasonable assumption that directed thinking is an achievement to be desired, yet much thinking, even practical problem solving does not have a plan.

Discoveries made in this wandering sort of way might well be revolutionary.

Indeed, it cannot have a plan, for, by definition, it is seeking a way. For the open problems we often encounter in life, there is no map. Hence, constrained mind wandering may constitute the most general practical problem solving strategy. This was the essence of the psychologist, Donald Campbell’s, notion that truly creative problem solving must reflect an unsystematic, blind – but not quite random – variation-and-selective-retention system. A similar position grounds Karl Popper’s arguments about the nature of scientific discovery. Much earlier, the philosopher, Charles Peirce had proposed a similar theory in the Nineteenth Century. He sometimes simply called it “guessing,” but spoke more specifically of abduction, the details of which need not concern us here. This blind variation (i.e., wandering) is, logically, the only way in which genuinely new knowledge can come about. If it could have been foreseen, or was inherent in what one already knew, it could hardly be entirely original. As a contemporary of Peirce put it “The disclosure of new provinces of facts before unknown can only be brought about by accidental circumstances” (Mach, 1895). Solutions arrived at in this way will most often be, at best, satisficing rather than maximizing or even optimal strategies and often lead to, indeed sometimes require, a subsequent restructuring of the original problem. Thus, discoveries made in this wandering sort of way might well be revolutionary.  If this reasoning has any merit then an important task is to determine the constraints – or laws of mind wandering.


Our task must, therefore, be to understand the nature of the mind-wander as it occurs in everyday life, and not to eliminate it; for aside from the joys of daydreaming, mind wandering appears to be a source of creativity, as the poets and romantics have always claimed. Yet, the unfortunate and sometimes disastrous consequences, for self and others of undisciplined mind-wandering, in the wrong place or at the wrong time, as is all too well documented. With a better understanding of the nature of attention and inattention in everyday life we may move toward achieving that age-old quest for the critical balance of discipline and creativity.