People prone to mind-wandering are better at shifting between tasks

Letting your mind wander while you’re meant to be working on a task doesn’t sound like a particularly good idea. Indeed, psychologists have viewed mind-wandering in this context as a failing — specifically, a failure of executive control to maintain focus. Evidence that mind-wandering worsens performance on tasks that tap into working memory, for example, supports this idea. However, the full picture is not so neat… 

Though older adults generally have poorer executive control than younger people, they tend to report less mind wandering. And some studies that required young adults to switch between various tasks have found that mind-wandering made no difference to their performance. This is “perplexing”, note the authors of a new paper in Consciousness and Cognition — at least in the context of traditional theories. But Yi-Sheng Wong at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and colleagues report findings that support an alternative idea: that people who have a tendency to mind-wander enjoy greater “cognitive flexibility” — that is, they can shift more easily from one type of cognitive challenge to another. Continue reading →

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