European Commission logo
English English
CORDIS - EU research results

Not all minds that wander are lost: A neurocognitive test of mind-wandering state’s contribution to human cognition.

Project description

The wandering mind: neural mechanisms of creative thinking and its regulation

Creativity often comes from a lack of constraint, such as that inherent in highly scheduled and programmed tasks requiring specific thought patterns without the freedom to let one’s mind wander. The cognitive role of mind-wandering is an emerging topic of research that has led to intense debate, given a lack of rigorous scientific paradigms with which to evaluate it. The European Research Council-funded WANDERINGMINDS project will use novel experience sampling methods based on functional magnetic resonance imaging to get at the neural mechanisms of mind wandering and how they are managed. Outcomes will point to how mind-wandering contributes to creative and novel thinking and how it can be regulated.


Experience does not always arise from the events in the immediate environment; research has shown that states such as mind-wandering occupy almost half of our waking thought. Although mind-wandering has gained a foothold in cognitive science, our understanding of this core form of cognition is piecemeal and disjointed, making it a regular topic of theoretical debates in high-profile journals (e.g. Science and Psychological Bulletin). I have argued that these controversies are due to the lack of a coherent framework in which to explore mind-wandering’s role in cognition. In particular, a key problem is overcoming simple views that propose that mind wandering is merely a state that leads to errors, or unhappiness; accounts that persist in the face of evidence that it contributes foresight and originality to human thought.
This project will allow me to assemble a team of researchers and develop an account of how mind-wandering contributes to creative and novel thinking and how it can be regulated to prevent interference with ongoing action. We will explore the experiential categories of the state using novel experience-sampling methods I have developed and explore its neural basis using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Using these measures, we will: (i) identify the neural correlates of different categories of mind-wandering experiences, (ii) use these metrics to explore the mechanisms that underlie the creative properties of thinking during mind-wandering, (iii) identify how this creative mode of thought is managed so as not to disrupt important goals in the here and now (such as learning) and (iv) explore these processes in the context of both controlled laboratory studies and longitudinally in the real world by assessing their beneficial role in academic performance. This project will redefine our understanding of mind-wandering as a vital and dynamic element of the mental lives of every member of our species.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 800 000,00
YO10 5DD York North Yorkshire
United Kingdom

See on map

Yorkshire and the Humber North Yorkshire York
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 800 000,00

Beneficiaries (1)