The Experiential Landscape of Mind Wandering


  • Teodora Savic Comenius University Bratislava
  • Urban Kordeš University of Ljubljana



Although it has long fascinated philosophers and scientists, due to its private nature, mind wandering, defined as thoughts unrelated to the task at hand (MW), has long been disregarded as inaccessible to empirical enquiry.

With the development of cognitive psychology, MW has returned to experimental labs, but although we spend almost half of our time awake mind wandering, researchers mostly viewed it as a form of distraction and used it to research attention and executive functions. Few studies have tried to delve into the phenomenology of MW, and they came to interesting findings about the prospective bias and goal-oriented purpose of mind wandering. Other phenomenological features have also been explored like form, emotional valence, realism, agency, etc. [1]

In 2010 a group of scientists showed that the “wandering mind is an unhappy mind” in a giant first-person study that used smartphones for data collection. However, the study collected only “thin” phenomenological data (multiple-choice questions) rather than describing their experience in-depth. [2]

Methods and Results

In this research, we will use the Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) method to obtain ecologically valid data from the participants about their mind wandering. [3]

There will be 15 participants in the study: 10 first-year students of Cognitive science at the University of Ljubljana, and 5 second-year and former students of the program. Each will provide min. 27 samples.

The participants will sample their experience at several random moments throughout the day over the course of three weeks. They have no prior education about MW and will receive only the minimum information needed to be able to collect the data. In addition to this spontaneous “capturing” of the mind wandering, the participants will be encouraged to share a number of purposeful (important moments) samples.

Data collection will be followed by interviews and qualitative analysis of the data.

The main research questions that will be guiding this study are: how does MW start? What are its experiential domains? What is the role of the agency? What are the main topics of MW?

The study also faces a number of limitations. Participants who become familiar with the DES method usually start to check out the experiential qualities of their thoughts as described by Hurlburt. Other potential issues are participant engagement and data quality.


[1] D. Stawarzyk, “Phenomenological properties of mind-wandering and daydreaming: a historical overview and functional correlates,” in The Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought: Mind-wandering, Creativity, and Dreaming, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 193–214.

[2] M. A. Killingsworth and D. T. Gilbert, "A wandering mind is an unhappy mind," Science, vol. 330, no. 6006, pp. 932-932, 2010.

[3] R. T. Hurlburt and S. A. Akhter, "The descriptive experience sampling metho," Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, vol. 5, pp. 271-301, 2006.