The Philosophy of Mind Wandering

In Fox Kieran & Christoff Kalina (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought and Creativity. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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Our paper serves as an introduction to a budding field: the philosophy of mind-wandering. We begin with a philosophical critique of the standard psychological definitions of mind-wandering as task-unrelated or stimulus-independent. Although these definitions have helped bring mind-wandering research onto centre stage in psychology and cognitive neuroscience, they have substantial limitations that researchers must overcome to move forward. Specifically, the standard definitions do not account for (i) the dynamics of mind wandering, (ii) task-unrelated thought that does not qualify as mind-wandering, and (iii) the ways that mind-wandering can be task-related. We then survey three philosophical accounts that improve upon the current psychological definitions. We first present our account of mind-wandering as “unguided thinking”. Next we review Thomas Metzinger’s view that mind-wandering can be defined as thought lacking meta-awareness and cognitive agency, as well as Peter Carruthers’s and Fabian Dorsch’s definitions of mind-wandering as disunified thinking. We argue that these latter views are inadequate, and we show that our definition of mind-wandering as unguided thinking is not only conceptually and phenomenologically precise but also can be operationalized in a principled way for empirical research.

Author Profiles

Evan Thompson
University of British Columbia
Zachary C. Irving
University of Virginia


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