The persistence of thought: evidence for a role of working memory in the maintenance of the daydreaming state

Understanding the process by which the mind generates and sustain the mental content when the mind wanders is one of the most important questions in understanding the phenomena. One view on how this process occurs is that the experiences are supported by the process of working memory: our mental capacity to sustain and buffer information in a mental workspace. Support for this perspective comes from two experimental papers published this year. Along with colleagues in the University of Wisconsin, we demonstrated that higher capacity for working memory was positively associated with greater off-task thought. This association was only observed in easy task (such as simple choice reaction time or breath counting) suggesting that when performing simple tasks that do not engage all of our mental resources, we use our idle working memory capacity to support and maintain the internal train of thought that forms the mental content of our daydreams.  This research was published this week in the journal Psychological Science.

In a second study conducted with colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, we investigated how this process relates to the content of off task episodes. In this experiment published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition we demonstrated that the same measure of working memory capacity was predictive of off task thoughts about the future but not about the past. Further analysis indicated that the content of these thoughts took the form of autobiographical plans that the individuals have about upcoming events, such as going to the gym or romantic dates. This result suggests that the motivation for using working memory to support daydreaming or mind-wandering maybe to make progress on the pressing goals that form the backdrop of our lives.

Together these experiments suggest that the process of working memory helps support the mental content that our minds generate when we daydream.  Moreover, when we are engaged on an undemanding task (such as washing the dishes or riding on the bus) we use these idle resources in attempts to make progress in the problems and concerns that we all have as we navigate through daily life.  Whether using working memory in this fashion is necessarily the best tactic for a healthy balanced life remains to be seen.  However, as the capacity for working memory is important in educational achievement and predicts success in the workplace, the association with mind-wandering implies that daydreaming in non-demanding tasks is a part of the mental life of those people who tend to be successful in modern life.

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