For 7 days, 8 times a day, the researchers randomly asked 274 undergraduates at North Carolina at Greensboro whether they were mind-wandering and the quality of their daydreams.
They also asked them to engage in a range of tasks in the laboratory that assessed their rates of mind-wandering, the contents of their off-task thoughts, and their "executive functioning" (a set of skills that helps keep things in memory despite distractions and focus on the relevant details).
Most research on mind-wandering and daydreaming draws on either two methods: strict, laboratory conditions that ask people to complete boring, cognitive tasks and retrospective surveys that ask people to recall how often they daydream in daily life.
It has been rather difficult to compare these results to each other; laboratory tasks aren't representative of how we normally go about our day, and surveys are prone to memory distortion.
The researchers found that the students whose minds wandered during tests in the lab tended to be worried—they were anxiously thinking about problems, not focusing on the task at hand.
But the people whose minds wandered frequently in real life weren’t brooding; they were dreaming when the context allowed it, and they were more often able to focus in the lab test context.
We may share your information with third-party partners for marketing purposes.
The results suggest, Kane says, that people with good cognitive control—who also tend to score high on tests of intelligence and achievement—adapt their thinking to circumstantial demands.
They daydream when they’re free to do so, and focus when it’s necessary.