Information Age Education
   Issue Number 179
February, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

A Sometimes Joyful Wandering Mind

Robert Sylwester
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

We tend to think that we're consciously engaged during most of the time that we're awake, but the reality is that we're consciously engaged during only about half of it. Further, goal directed activity encompasses only about 1/3 of the typical 24-hour cycle. The renowned psychologist Michael Corballis (2015) suggests that much of the rest of our time is spent in an idling process called mind wandering. He discusses the phenomenon in an intriguing book, Mind Wandering: What the Brain Does When You're Not Looking.

The basic point of a wandering mind is this: Our brain simultaneously processes a variety of concerns. A satisfying response for some problems occurs almost immediately. Some responses require us to delay and incorporate additional elements. Some problems have no immediate solution and require ongoing searches.

The following situation often occurs when I'm writing during an evening. I'll come to a point at which I can't think of the appropriate term or phrase that I need to continue. Checking Google doesn't help. Finally, I decide to forget about it and go to bed. I lie down, and a few minutes later, the elusive phrase pops up in my mind. I get up and jot it down because if I don't, I'll have forgotten it in the morning. What occurred?

My evening writing had been only one of a variety of body systems and cognitive issues that my brain had been processing. My sensory and motor systems basically shut down when I lay down to sleep, but some currently important cognitive problems continued to occupy my mind as long as I was still awake. Since more of my relaxed brain was now available to search for the elusive phrase, it quickly emerged since it was obviously a phrase that I had previously used. You've undoubtedly had similar experiences so you understand the mental joy that such solutions bring.

A student uninterested in a class session can similarly wander mentally into a different set of experiences. Some such wanderings can be quite pleasurable, others seek solutions to difficult problems. This daytime wandering mind process is commonly called day dreaming.

Daytime Mind Wandering

Mind wandering can assume various forms. Some formats, such as novels, poems, songs, films, and political promises are fictional. Others, such as inattentive accidents, often begin with mind wandering. A fictional work can begin with mind wondering, but the author's actual development of it requires a focused mind, one that will catch and then eliminate the kinds of omissions that can occur with pure mind wandering. Fictional works are about an intriguing pretend story, but they have to match (or at least approximate) the realities of real life. Fictional development thus shifts back and forth between mental wandering and focused thought. This back and forth shift is pretty much what we do during much of our waking time. Corballis suggests that it creates an even split between focused and wandering thought.

Mind wandering occurs within what's called the default-mode network, which is composed of various brain regions that aren't involved in regulating sensory/motor functions. Think of the diffuse activity in a small town. People are carrying out their normal tasks when a noisy event occurs. Those who can temporarily leave their tasks do so to see what occurred. The rest of the community continues on with what they were doing, but the overall activity is now briefly centralized around the noisy event, and it's reduced elsewhere. People gradually wander back to what they were previously doing (perhaps telling others about the event) and things go back to normal. The default-mode network can thus be easily and temporarily distracted, an advantage for an alert brain that needs to process many challenges. The comedian Steven Wright put it, "I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering off."

Nighttime Mind Wandering

Conscious activity periodically leaves us, and especially for an extended period at night. A night’s sleep is commonly divided into 1.5 hours of REM sleep (rapid eye movement, or dreaming sleep) and the rest in non-REM sleep (NREM). NREM sleep is thought to consolidate learned material and memories. Think of periodically taking one's car in to get its parts and systems serviced.

REM sleep occurs about every 90 minutes, and it also activates the default-mode network. The length of dreaming increases as the night increases, and also as we get older. Narratives enter into dreams at about seven years of age. Dreams are much less about consolidating and contemplating than is NREM sleep. In most people, dreams become explorations of mostly visual phenomena. Yearnings and fears can dominate. The prefrontal cortex is fortuitously deactivated during dreaming to keep us from acting out our dreams, many of which are positive and upbeat. Ted Geisel, the author of the Dr. Seuss books, suggested that, "You know that you're in love when you can't fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams."

External Mind Wandering

We've evolved to periodically escape the complexities that dominate the here and now. Mind wandering is the internal version, and the varieties of play comprise the external. Play is the opportunity that we and others have to observe our mind wandering. Play is antic in that others may find our behavior strange, but it's something that we find enjoyable from childhood on. Play can involve childhood explorations of what to do with legs/body/arms, or adults paying a lot of money to watch a ballet company explore the greater complexities of legs/bodies/arms. We call football sequences plays but they're actually well-rehearsed sequences designed by coaches who don't do the plays. Well, maybe they did play when they imagined what might occur if this player did this and that player did that.

Whatever. Mind wandering isn't a waste of time. We have occasions when we need to attend carefully to a task, but we've also evolved to day-dream and night-dream and to mentally wander off briefly during a lot of occasions in between. It's irrelevant whether mind wandering results in creative developments that will change society or only provides a bit of imaginative enjoyment or concern. It's evolved to be an integral part of who we are. That's enough.


Longman.Corballis, M. (2015) Mind wandering: What the brain does when you're not looking. Chicago: University of Chicago.


Robert Sylwester is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and co-editor of the IAE Newsletter. His most recent of 10 books are A Child’s Brain: The Need for Nurture (2010, Corwin Press) and The Adolescent Brain: Reaching for Autonomy (2007, Corwin Press). He also helped to write/edit seven books for the IAE Newsletter. He wrote a monthly column for the Internet journal Brain Connection during its entire 2000-2009 run.

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