I just ordered Michael Corballis’ new book, The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, which obviously is very much in my wheelhouse these days. I read some of Corballis’ work on mind-wandering and thinking about the future when I was working on the psychology of futures (a subject that I think is really interesting and deserves more attention among futurists).

His new book should be a nice addition to the literature on mind-wandering, if the reviews are any indication. Inside Higher Ed writes that

Corballis, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, wants to reconcile us to the mental flux through a review of scientific research on the neurobiology behind ordinary awareness. From his perspective, wandering attention is necessary and even beneficial for humankind, in spite of the disapproval of authority figures for countless generations….

Zoning out while someone is speaking, then, is not a solely a function of overburdened powers of attention reaching their limit. The wandering mind is part of a range of phenomena that includes dreaming, fantasy, hallucination and creativity — all of them products of the brain’s constant obligation to shift between levels of experience and directions of “time travel.”


While interesting on the whole, the book leaves completely unaddressed the question of whether there is any difference between a mind wandering under its own powers, so to speak, and one that’s grown accustomed to constantly increasing bombardment. Where the monkeys used to swing from vine to vine, they now run the risk of colliding in midair, distracted by all the beeps and buzzes coming from their smartphones.

Personally, I know the answer to this: yes, there is a difference, and it’s a big one. The mind-wandering that Corballis talks about is one in which the mind goes off and does its own thing, like a child in a museum who’s broken off from the rest of the class to look more closely at an exhibit: that mind is, in a sense, choosing its own subject.

Digital distractions, in contrast, don’t let the mind wander free; they take the mind’s attention away from something proximate (like a book, or traffic) and redirect it to a screen. In my experience, in moments of digital diversion just enough of my attention is spent on posts or feeds or levels to keep me either from paying attention to what I should be doing, but I’m still too engaged for any useful mind-wandering to happen.