Prospection, Consciousness, and the Wandering Mind

by Lawrence Neil


Editor’s note: I began at Seymour Magazine with a background in arts and culture writing, initially attracted by the magazine’s deep and varied explorations of the creative process.  As my time here progressed, I discovered that I had much to learn about Seymour’s other pillars of research: consciousness, psychology, and philosophy.  Over the fall season, however, conversations within our community led me to discover the field of prospection, a new, fascinating theory of behavior and brain activity that stemmed from the discovery of our mind’s default mode network.  I fell deep into this cutting-edge field that combines elements of philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience, and proposes a future-driven approach to the way we think and experience reality.  This piece is the culmination of my research, highlighting the field’s roots, its diverse and innovative thinkers, the captivating ideas at its core, and the potentially revolutionary ideas at its frontier – L.N. 2016


Blind Spots


Imagine asking a mechanic to tell you how a car works.  This mechanic says he knows everything about cars, that he’s been doing this for years.  He describes the steering wheel and spark plugs.  He tells you about tires and brake pads, and he seems to really know his stuff.  When you ask him about the engine, however, he says, “What’s that?”

This is how Dr. Chandra Sripada, a trailblazing philosopher and neuroscientist from the University of Michigan, depicts the blind spot in modern science’s representation of the brain and its capacities, and he’s not alone.  A growing collection of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists are beginning to uncover an enormous and fundamental mechanism of our mind that has been overlooked and unexplored until the past decade.  This unexpected, powerful engine is the imaginative and prospective ability of a wandering mind and, if current trajectories of study are any indication, the exploration of its capacities may prove to be nothing short of paradigm shifting.

Since humans began thinking about thinking, we’ve known anecdotally that the mind never stops churning.  The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Rest is far from restful, and Enlightenment thinker John Locke stated that “whilst we are awake, there will always be a train of ideas succeeding one another in our minds.”  Over the last hundred years, however, researchers in a wide variety of fields have begun to flesh out the simple postulation that a mind is always working.


A girl daydreaming during class, Florida -- photo by Allan Grant, 1947

A girl daydreaming during class, Florida — photo by Allan Grant, 1947

The Father of Daydreaming


Deemed by Scientific American as the “Father of Daydreaming,” Jerome L. Singer is the seminal thinker in the field.  Since the 1950s, Singer has constructed experiments that outlined the nature of daydreaming and was the first to characterize the practice as a normal, widespread, and adaptive human behavior.  Prior to his work, daydreaming had been thought of as symptomatic of mental disorder.  Before brain imaging technologies existed, Singer presaged the idea that mind-wandering was the normal state of mental activity to which the brain defaulted in the absence of external demands.

While much of the research on mind-wandering has focused on its negative effects – particularly in regards to memory, attention, and task-related processes – Singer also laid the groundwork for the exploration of mind-wandering’s potential positives.  He found links between mind-wandering and creativity, increased social skills, planning, and problem solving.  

In order to properly study this phenomenon, Singer recognized that reconsidering methods of evaluation was critical. There is certainly no denying that a wandering mind is not a focused mind and can have critical negative effects in tradition indicators of intelligence: cognitive control, deliberate planning, and decontextualized problem-solving.  Yet a number of personal, internal benefits can occur concurrently with the same apparently negative activity.  As the writer Rebecca McMillan stated in her review of Singer’s work:

“Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event…  Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.”

Singer’s work helped recontextualize the negative effects on, say, IQ tests in favor of a less quantitative but perhaps even more significant emotional intelligence.  This type of validation was essential in establishing mind-wandering as worthy of further serious exploration.


Life | Time Image Archive

Time | Life Image Archive

Factory Settings


Until relatively recently, however, there had been little neurological evidence detailing the actual machinations of a wandering mind.  Hans Berger, the German psychiatrist who first measured the brain’s electrical activity in the 1920s, was able to observe it in waves in relation to the intensity during focused activity. “Mental work,” he stated, “adds only a small increment to the cortical work which is going on continuously and not only in the waking state.”  Similar studies demonstrated the brain’s disproportionate energy consumption and activity, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s and the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that this phenomenon has been substantially built upon.

In 2001, the Raichle Lab at the University of Washington School of Medicine coined the term ‘Default Mode Network’ for a series of linked brain regions they discovered that were active while the mind was “at rest” – that is, not performing a focused task.  When subjects in fMRI scans were asked to perform a task, this network was deactivated, but when they were not, the network was once again active.  The discovery and easy identification of this network through imaging in the mid-2000s was a watershed moment in the field: prior to 2007, only twelve published papers mentioned the ‘default mode network’ or equivalent; since ‘07, there have been thousands.

I got a chance to discuss this with one of the leading researchers in the field of mind-wandering, Dr. Jonathan Schooler.  Dr. Schooler’s Memory Emotion Thought Awareness (META) Lab at the University of California – Santa Barbara is a prolific publisher of fascinating studies exploring, among other things, the relationship between the DMN and mind-wandering, pushing the boundaries of what is possible through thought.

“The Default Mode Network has helped us to appreciate just how engaged our brains and minds are even when, from all external appearances, we’re not doing anything at all.  Initially, people were flummoxed as to why regions of the brain would be active when people were at rest.  But as we have increasingly explored that mystery, it’s clear that people are engaging in elaborative thinking at all times, especially when they have no distractions or external things that are taking their minds off of what’s going on internally.”

For the field, the strong identification of this network was like discovering DNA, or the first primates born with opposable thumbs: the possible avenues of exploration seemed endless.  As fast as you could think them up, unexplored pathways were opened up to study when we realized that our mind at “rest” is actually working hard.  Quite hard, actually – 95% of the rate it works when we’re performing a focused task like reading a book or taking a test, as Berger had initially observed.


from 'La Jetée' by Chris Marker

from ‘La Jetée’ by Chris Marker

Back to the Future


So… what does this mean?  What is it doing?  We’re on the early part of an exponential curve of discoveries, some think.  And the research they’re undertaking right now to unearth our hidden potential is very exciting.

Researchers began to look at the characteristics and the outline of mind-wandering – they found that this resting state and the default mode network was activated between 25-50% of our waking hours.  There’s a huge amount of stimulus-independent thought, so it’s natural to assume that it is somehow adaptive and functional, as opposed to, as we previously mentioned, simply distracting from performing task-focused activities.

As you might be able to guess in considering your own wandering mind, much of the first wave of research found that the mind seemed dedicated to digesting the past and projecting this into the future.  Mind-wandering ended up being largely characterized by two major and sometimes overlapping types of thought: goal-focused and prospective.

One of the fascinating fields of research that this has spawned is around prospection – the mental generation and evaluation of future possibilities.  Prospection itself is a new way of understanding how we behave – in this theory of behavior, we project ourselves into other times, places, and perspectives, and act based on the constructed simulations we’ve mentally observed.  

The idea of prospection builds on groundwork laid by the psychologist George Kelly at the beginning of the 20th century.  He rejected the lack of agency proposed by existing theories.  Rather than seeing humans as subject to environmental cues as suggested by behaviorism, or subconscious desires stemming from childhood as outlined by psychoanalysis, Kelly believed humans were active in the way they constructed their reality:

“Might not the individual man, each in his own personal way, assume more of the stature of a scientist, ever seeking to predict and control the course of events with which he is involved? Would he not have his theories, test his hypotheses, and weigh his experimental evidence?”



Reverse Engineering Our Reality


Since 2012, the University of Pennsylvania’s Prospective Psychology Center has funded projects in this realm from leading researchers across a diverse group of fields.  The projects explore the idea that rather than being driven by the past, we are drawn forward by the future. Rather than living through ‘if/then’ statements, mental prospection is actually the first step towards ‘then/if’ statements.  We imagine and simulate a future, then reverse-engineer behavior towards the realization of that future.

The research ranges in its approaches.  In a foundational example that initially drew me into this field of research, the aforementioned Dr. Chandra Sripada demonstrated that mind-wandering serves as a form of deep learning through repeated presentation of learning systems.  His study demonstrated that the neurological activities taking place in the Default Mode Network use our many specific, detailed experiences to build generalized, layered maps of subjective realities during rest.  These “maps” allow for some of the highest-level information digestion to occur unconsciously, including generalization, explanation, abstraction, gist-finding, and social interpretation.  

Dr. Peter Railton, a moral philosopher, speaks about the role of desire, a tool that hinges on the motivational draw of the future, and its ability to fill in gaps in mental representations of lived outcomes.  Desire links expectation to action, and uses the brain’s ability to create mental mappings of simulated expected futures during ‘rest’ to best create courses of action to achieve these desired outcomes.

Even Dr. Kathleen Vohs, the researcher whose studies on decision fatigue impact the daily routines of President Obama or Mark Zuckerberg, is researching under the Center’s umbrella.  Her project revolves around whether disconnection – that is, mentally distancing oneself from present activities – produces more accurate forecasting for eventual lived experiences.  Her hypothesis is that disconnection from the here-and-now will curb biases and unwise reasoning, leading to less error-prone prospections and better realized futures.  Taking time to reflect and remove yourself from immediate stimuli, she proposes, could have a material impact on your future.

Dr. Schooler’s lab has contributed fundamental research about the creative potential of the state.  In a widely-cited study, they were able to demonstrate that mind-wandering provides an incubation period that results in increased levels of creativity and creative problem solving.  An oft-used baseline test of creativity (Unusual Uses Task – UUT) was performed twice, separated by a either a mentally demanding task, mentally simple task, or a period rest.  Subjects performing the mentally simple task – that which is most conducive to mind-wandering – performed better on the repeated UUT, suggesting that the period of mind-wandering served as an unconscious period of incubation.  In short, without doing anything more than affording their mind the time and space to churn, subjects became more creative.



Einstein on a bike, Santa Barbara — photo by Ben Meyer, 1933

Stimulating the Sub-Conscious


Dr. Schooler is currently building on his creative incubation study in an attempt to try to stimulate the most productive – writ large – stimulus-independent thoughts:

“We’ve been looking at creative writers and physicists and when they have their ideas.  It appears as though somewhere around ⅓ of their ideas that they have on a problem occur not while they’re sitting at their desk working on the problem but either when they’re working on another problem or not even at their desk at all, but simply at the shower, paying bills.

We’ve looked to see what is the quality of the mind-wandering of [these] creative individuals.  We’ve found a number of different qualities: the mind-wandering is about things they describe as more meaningful.  Second, maybe unsurprisingly, they tended to have more bizarre mind-wandering.  Third, they tended to identify problems that they were stumped on and mind-wander about those…  We’re trying to see if we can help train people to be a bit more directive in their mind-wandering to facilitate creativity in that manner.

Basically the idea is that, if you reach an impasse in a problem and say, ‘I’m not going to think about it now,’ it may then spontaneously pop into mind in other contexts, quite possibly when there is something in the environment or something that crosses your mind that allows you to make progress on it rather than exclusively relying on very deliberately thinking it through.”

And each study, like this initial research on creative incubation, seems like it just opens up more unprecedented possibilities about the relationship between perception, time, consciousness, creativity, and reality.  Dr. Bethany Teachman, Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at the University of Virginia, is currently exploring if Cognitive Bias Modification can be used to favor the generation of healthy positive representations of possible future states.  Visualization is often cited in motivational speaking or self-help as being vital to success, but what if we’re on the brink of discover a deep neurological truth to its psychological benefits?  What if proper, positive prospection can lead to the reverse-engineered reality of our dreams?



NY World’s Fair “I Have Seen The Future” GM General Motors Futurama Pin

License to Speculate


Dr. Schooler has attempted to zoom out and confront some of the larger concepts and frameworks that these studies stir up, along with the ways that the wandering mind may provide some answers.  In a recent talk on mind wandering and meta-awareness, he quoted the noted physicist Andrei Linde, who proposed including consciousness as a possible fundamental dimension of reality – or at the very least, considering it:

“There are some major gaps in our current understanding of reality and as a result, that should give us license and encourage us to be speculative – to think about what kinds of solutions might help us with these gaps.

From my own perspective, the two things that are fundamentally missing are one, really just understanding what it means to have a subjective experience.  Here’s this sort of mysterious subjective state – called the hard problem of consciousness, the explanatory gap, the mind-body problem – but we really don’t understand what underpins that we actually have experiences as opposed to just outward behaviors.

The second point is that physicists claim that the flow of time is an illusion.  The only thing flowing through time is the conscious observer, but we don’t know what consciousness is.  We have this peculiar thing where we don’t know what consciousness is and physicists claim that the flow of time is just an illusion of consciousness that we claim doesn’t exist.

I find that quite troubling.  My speculation is if you could imagine that consciousness was a real thing and that we are moving in consciousness relative to time, that provides the additional degree of freedom that allows us to actually move through time and no longer make the flow of time simply an illusion.  By postulating an additional dimension of conscious time, that may provide a way to conceptualize how subjective experience exists in the physical universe, and also how it is that we can meaningfully flow through time.”

Along with a few other colleagues at UCSB, Schooler recently began a second lab – the Theoretical and Applied Neuro-Causality (TANC) Lab – to explore these questions directly.  The lab’s first study?  Exploring the potential of human precognitive ability – the ability to predict the future.

“One of the implications of this idea that there may be a genuine subjective dimension of time is that it suggests that there could be connections with an objective dimension of time that we don’t appreciate, and those connections could have something to do with conscious experience.

Looking at precognition potentially provides another angle for exploring the anomalies of time.  There have been arguments that retrocausation is not necessarily inconsistent with physics.”

During this part of our conversation, he was sure to emphasize the speculative nature of this research and that as of yet, he is unconvinced.  But even so, he remained committed to poking at the current paradigm.  

“It is sufficiently promising to merit investigation.  It’s kind of natural to think about what challenges our natural view.”

Perhaps this open-mindedness is the most unexpectedly exciting element of this all.  Dr. Schooler and the hundreds of researchers who have taken up this field are rigorous academics, not the types of thinkers necessarily predisposed to buying into and propagating some far-out conceptions of consciousness and subjective realities — yet they’re willing to explore them.  Their work is curious and questioning, unwilling to accept what many of us take for granted as objective truth.  It’s energizing to see experts in the field pushing these boundaries, scratching at the surface, squinting their eyes and looking a little harder at our current paradigms of reality and experience.  We could all take a cue.



My interview with Dr. Jonathan Schooler was edited for clarity and length.

L.N. 2016


Published: November 24th, 2016

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