The science of a wandering mind

More than just a distraction, mind-wandering (and its cousin, daydreaming) may help us prepare for the future

By Tim Vernimmen 09.01.2022

When psychologist Jonathan Smallwood set out to study mind-wandering about 25 years ago, few of his peers thought that was a very good idea. How could one hope to investigate these spontaneous and unpredictable thoughts that crop up when people stop paying attention to their surroundings and the task at hand? Thoughts that couldn’t be linked to any measurable outward behavior?

Cartoon portrait of Jonathan Smallwood


Psychologist Jonathan Smallwood

Queen’s University, Ontario

But Smallwood, now at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, forged ahead. He used as his tool a downright tedious computer task that was intended to reproduce the kinds of lapses of attention that cause us to pour milk into someone’s cup when they asked for black coffee. And he started out by asking study participants a few basic questions to gain insight into when and why minds tend to wander, and what subjects they tend to wander toward. After a while, he began to scan participants’ brains as well, to catch a glimpse of what was going on in there during mind-wandering.

Smallwood learned that unhappy minds tend to wander in the past, while happy minds often ponder the future. He also became convinced that wandering among our memories is crucial to help prepare us for what is yet to come. Though some kinds of mind-wandering — such as dwelling on problems that can’t be fixed — may be associated with depression, Smallwood now believes mind-wandering is rarely a waste of time. It is merely our brain trying to get a bit of work done when it is under the impression that there isn’t much else going on.

Smallwood, who coauthored an influential 2015 overview of mind-wandering research in the Annual Review of Psychology, is the first to admit that many questions remain to be answered. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Is mind-wandering the same thing as daydreaming, or would you say those are different?

I think it’s a similar process used in a different context. When you’re on holiday, and you’ve got lots of free time, you might say you’re daydreaming about what you’d like to do next. But when you’re under pressure to perform, you’d experience the same thoughts as mind-wandering.

Inside the adolescent brain

I think it is more helpful to talk about the underlying processes: spontaneous thought, or the decoupling of attention from perception, which is what happens when our thoughts separate from our perception of the environment. Both these processes take place during mind-wandering and daydreaming.

It often takes us a while to catch ourselves mind-wandering. How can you catch it to study it in other people?

In the beginning, we gave people experimental tasks that were really boring, so that mind-wandering would happen a lot. We would just ask from time to time, “Are you mind-wandering?” while recording the brain’s activity in an fMRI scanner. 

But what I’ve realized, after doing studies like that for a long time, is that if we want to know how thinking works in the real world, where people are doing things like watching TV or going for a run, most of the data we have are never going to tell us very much. 

So we are now trying to study these situations. And instead of doing experiments where we just ask, “Are you mind-wandering?” we are now asking people a lot of different questions, like: “Are your thoughts detailed? Are they positive? Are they distracting you?” 

How and why did you decide to study mind-wandering? 

I started studying mind-wandering at the start of my career, when I was young and naive. 

I didn’t really understand at the time why nobody was studying it. Psychology was focused on measurable, outward behavior then. I thought to myself: That’s not what I want to understand about my thoughts. What I want to know is: Why do they come, where do they come from, and why do they persist even if they interfere with attention to the here and now?

Around the same time, brain imaging techniques were developing, and they were telling neuroscientists that something happens in the brain even when it isn’t occupied with a behavioral task. Large regions of the brain, now called the default mode network, did the opposite: If you gave people a task, the activity in these areas went down. 

When scientists made this link between brain activity and mind-wandering, it became fashionable. I’ve been very lucky, because I hadn’t anticipated any of that when I started my PhD, at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. But I’ve seen it all pan out.

Illustration of brain from different angles with some parts colored yellow, green or blue. Also shown are terms used in papers mentioning elements of the default mode network.

John Paul I had a special message for Catholics in the United States



Philip Kosloski – published on 09/03/22

Shortly after becoming pope, John Paul I spoke to a group of American bishops and urged them to uphold the dignity of marriage and the family.

During his 33-day papacy, John Paul I led an active schedule, receiving visitors and giving speeches to various groups. This included a group of American bishops on their visit to Rome.

He gave a very direct speech to these bishops, focusing on the dignity of marriage and the family.

Let us never grow tired of proclaiming the family as a community of love: conjugal love unites the couple and is procreative of new life; it mirrors the divine love, is communicated, and in the words of “Gaudium et Spes,” is actually a sharing in the covenant of love of Christ and his Church. We were all given the great grace of being born into such a community of love; it will be easy for us to uphold its value.

John Paul I pointed out the importance of proclaiming the indissolubility of marriage, combating the culture of divorce that was beginning to take shape in the United States.

In particular, the indissolubility of Christian marriage is important; although it is a difficult part of our message, we must proclaim it faithfully as part of God’s word, part of the mystery of faith. At the same time we are close to our people in their problems and difficulties. They must always know that we love them.

Furthermore, he encouraged parents to be the primary educators of their children, especially in matters of the faith.

And then we must encourage parents in their role as educators of their children – the first catechists and the best ones. What a great task and challenge they have: to teach children the love of God, to make it something real for them.

John Paul I firmly believed that holy families can in turn influence the world: “By the loving witness of their lives, families can bring Christ’s Gospel to others.”

Even though he didn’t have a long papacy, John Paul I used his time well and did what he could to support the family.


We read in Rev. 12:4: “And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her Child”.

What is very interesting and even eye-opening is that the Book of Revelation is describing not only the things that will take place in the future, but that already took place in history! This in and of itself must force us to stop and think about what is it we are expecting to learn from the Book of Revelation? Obviously purely futuristic approach would not be sufficient to explain many of the things that are unveiled/revealed, but that already have taken place. This confirms that the formal name of the book – Revelation/Apocalypse or literally the unveiling of the hidden things is a near perfect description of its actual content

Pope Francis Beatifies John Paul I, Pope for 33 Days

In one of the shortest pontificates in papal history, John Paul I gained a reputation for his humility and his dedication to teaching the faith in an understandable manner.

Pope Francis beatified Pope John Paul I in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 4.
Pope Francis beatified Pope John Paul I in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 4. (photo: Vatican Media / VM)

Courtney Mares/CNAVaticanSeptember 4, 2022

Pope Francis beatified John Paul I, who reigned as pope for only 33 days, amid a thunderstorm in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.

In his homily for the rainy beatification Mass on Sept. 4, Pope Francis said that John Paul I “embodied the poverty of a disciple” through his “victory over the temptation to put oneself at the center, to seek one’s own glory.”

Often called the “Smiling Pope,” John Paul I died unexpectedly on Sept. 28, 1978, a month after the conclave that elected him. 

In one of the shortest pontificates in papal history, John Paul I gained a reputation for his humility and his dedication to teaching the faith in an understandable manner.

Cardinals stood in the rain under yellow and white umbrellas as Pope Francis read out the declaration that Pope John Paul I can now be venerated locally on his feast day on Aug. 26.

“With a smile, Pope John Paul I managed to communicate the goodness of the Lord,” Francis said.

“How beautiful is a Church with a happy, serene and smiling face, that never closes doors, never hardens hearts, never complains or harbors resentment, does not grow angry or impatient, does not look dour or suffer nostalgia for the past. Let us pray to him, our father and our brother, and ask him to obtain for us ‘the smile of the soul.’”

During the beatification, a large banner on St. Peter’s Basilica unveiled a portrait of Blessed John Paul I as the postulator processed through the square with a relic: a handwritten note by the blessed Pope on the theological virtues.

John Paul I presided over only four general audiences as pope, offering catecheses on poverty, faith, hope and charity. Pope Francis quoted these catecheses throughout his homily. 

“As Pope John Paul I said, if you want to kiss Jesus crucified, ‘you cannot help bending over the cross and letting yourself be pricked by a few thorns of the crown on the Lord’s head’ (general audience, Sept. 27  1978). A love that perseveres to the end, thorns and all: no leaving things half done, no cutting corners, no fleeing difficulties,” Pope Francis said.

John Paul I was the first pope to be born in the 20th century and the most recent pope to be born in Italy. Born Albino Luciani on Oct. 17, 1912, the future John Paul I grew up in relative poverty in Italy’s northern Veneto region. 

At the age of 22, he was ordained a priest for the Italian Diocese of Belluno e Feltre in 1935. He served as the rector of the diocese’s seminary for 10 years and taught courses on moral theology, canon law and sacred art.

He participated in all of the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) as the bishop of Vittorio Veneto, and he worked to implement the guidelines of the Council in the following decade as the patriarch of Venice.

As a cardinal, he published a collection of “open letters” to historic figures, saints, famous writers and fictional characters. The book, Illustrissimi, included letters to Jesus, King David, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Christopher Marlowe, as well as Pinocchio and Figaro, the barber of Seville.

He made history in 1978 when he became the first pope to take a double name, after his two immediate predecessors, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. His episcopal motto was simply: Humilitas.

Shortly before his death at the age of 65, John Paul I prayed: “Lord take me as I am, with my defects, with my shortcomings, but make me become what you want me to be.”

As the rain clouds cleared by the end of the beatification ceremony, Pope Francis prayed the Angelus in Latin. He said that he was offering the prayer for peace in “martyred Ukraine.”

From his wheelchair, Pope Francis offered personal greetings at the end of the Mass to some of the cardinals, including Cardinal Angelo Becciu. He also greeted the crowd in the popemobile.