Not all minds that wander are lost: ADHD and the types of mind wandering

Jason Finley

In order to read this text you are focusing your attention on this single task, and you are filtering out distractions from your surroundings.  People with ADHD, myself included, have difficulty doing this.  A radio playing in the next room can act like an unwanted magnet to attention.  But we also often struggle with distraction from within: mind-wandering, when attention strays to thoughts unrelated to the task at hand.  No doubt this is a common human experience.

Mind wandering is often construed as a spontaneous unintentional shifting of attention.  But consider this: we can all mind-wander on purpose too.  Deliberate mind wandering can be a nice way to alleviate boredom or generate creative ideas.  Go ahead and think about something else right now, let random images emerge in your mind, envision fanciful experiences, free associate.  This text will still be here when you return.

Back now?  Good.  So, mind wandering can happen deliberately or spontaneously.  But a lot of prior research has missed this distinction, and thus the role that mind wandering plays in ADHD is ambiguous.  A recent article by Seli, Smallwood, and Cheyne in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review embraces this distinction and explores the extent to which these two types of mind wandering are separately related to overall levels of ADHD symptoms.

The researchers recruited 2,708 college students to answer questionnaires about mind wandering and about ADHD symptoms.  To measure self-reported deliberate mind wandering, there were four items that used a rating scale from “almost never” or “rarely” to “a lot”:

  • “I allow my thoughts to wander on purpose.”
  • “I enjoy mind-wandering.”
  • “I find mind-wandering is a good way to cope with boredom.”
  • “I allow myself to get absorbed in pleasant fantasy.”

To measure self-reported spontaneous mind wandering, there were four additional items:

  • “I find my thoughts wandering spontaneously.”
  • “When I mind-wander my thoughts tend to be pulled from topic to topic.”
  • “It feels like I don’t have control over when my mind wanders.”
  • “I mind-wander even when I’m supposed to be doing something else.

To measure ADHD symptoms, the researchers used a variant of the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale. For example, one item was: “How often do you have difficulty getting things in order when you have to do a task that requires organization?”  Clinically, this short screener serves only to recommend whether or not individuals should receive a more in-depth clinical assessment where they would potentially receive an official diagnosis of ADHD.  But, especially for research purposes, the experience of ADHD symptoms is better conceptualized as varying along a continuum rather than the binary “you have it or you don’t” distinction implied by diagnosis status.  So the mean score from the screener items is very useful here.

To summarize, the questionnaires measured self-report of overall frequency of mind wandering (deliberate vs. spontaneous) and overall frequency of symptoms consistent with ADHD in adults.  For each participant, the researchers calculated three mean scores: spontaneous mind wandering, deliberate mind wandering, and ADHD symptomatology.  The key question is how those three values were related to each other across participants.

What were the results?  Both deliberate and spontaneous mind-wandering were positively correlated with ADHD symptoms.  However, the two types of mind-wandering were also positively correlated with each other.  So multiple regression analyses were needed to determine how much each type of mind wandering was related to ADHD symptoms independently of the other type (semi-partial correlation).  These results were clear: “whereas spontaneous mind wandering is strongly independently related to ADHD symptoms, deliberate mind wandering is, at best, very weakly associated with such symptoms.”

This pattern of results is further illustrated by considering 69 participants in the study who self-identified as having been clinically diagnosed with ADHD.  Their mean score for deliberate mind wandering (4.20) was not significantly different from that of the other participants (4.61).  But their mean score for spontaneous mind wandering (5.13) was significantly higher than that of the other participants (4.33).

To sum it up: pretty much everyone experiences some mind wandering in everyday life, both deliberate and spontaneous.  People with greater ADHD symptoms tend to experience more mind wandering, particularly the spontaneous type.  This fits with the overall picture of ADHD minds often struggling with incorrigible distractibility (which to be clear is only problematic to the extent that it interferes with attempts to accomplish focused tasks).

It’s often possible to deploy practical countermeasures against external distractions such as noise in the environment (e.g., by using ear plugs).  But it can be harder to manage distraction due to the kaleidoscopic carnival of one’s own thoughts.

This research by Seli and colleagues points to spontaneous mind wandering as an important potential focus for intervention for ADHD.  But, as they note, we also need further research into no just the frequency of spontaneous mind wandering as it relates to ADHD, but also peoples’ ability to detect when mind wandering is occurring, and be able to exert control over it.  That is, metacognition of mind wandering.  Feel free to deliberately let your thoughts swim around that idea.

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