Drifting and Directed Minds: The Significance of Mind-Wandering for Mental Action

Abstract

Perhaps the central question in action theory is this: what ingredient of bodily action is missing in mere behaviour? But what is an analogous question for mental action? I ask the following: what ingredient of active, goal-directed, thought is missing in mind-wandering? I answer that guidance is the missing ingredient that separates mind-wandering and directed thinking. I define mind-wandering as unguided attention. Roughly speaking, attention is guided when you would feel pulled back, were you distracted. In contrast, a wandering attention drifts from topic to topic unchecked. From my discussion of mind-wandering, I extract general lessons about the causal basis, experiential character, and limits of mental action. Mind-wandering is a case study that allows us to tease apart two causal bases of mental action––guidance and motivation––that often track together and are thus easy to conflate. The contrast between mind-wandering and active thinking also sheds light on how goals are experienced during mental action. Goals are rarely the objects of awareness; rather, goals are “phenomenological frames” that carve experience into felt distractions (which we are guided away from) and relevant information (which we are guided towards). Finally, I account for a limit-case of mental action that psychologists call “intentional mind-wandering”.

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Zachary C. Irving
University of Virginia

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