Pros and cons of a wandering mind: A prospective study

Cristina Ottaviani, Alessandro Couyoumdjian

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Mind wandering (MW) has recently been associated with both adaptive (e.g., creativity enhancement) and maladaptive (e.g., mood worsening) consequences. This study aimed at investigating whether proneness to MW was prospectively associated with negative health outcomes. At time 0, 21 women, 19 men; mean age = 24.5 (4.9) underwent a 5-min baseline electrocardiogram (ECG), a 20-min laboratory tracking task with thought probes, and personality questionnaires. At time 1 (1 year follow-up), the same participants underwent a 24-h Ecological Momentary Assessment characterized by ambulatory ECG recording and electronic diaries. First, we examined if the likelihood of being a "mind wanderer" was associated with specific personality dispositions. Then, we tested if the occurrence of episodes of MW in the lab would be correlated with frequency of MW in daily life. Finally, multiple regression models were used to test if MW longitudinally acted as a risk factor for health, accounting for the effects of biobehavioral variables. Among dispositional traits, the frequency of MW episodes in daily life was inversely associated with the capacity of being mindful (i.e., aware of the present moment and non-judging). There was a positive correlation between frequency of MW in the lab and in daily life, suggesting that it is a stable disposition of the individual. When differentiated from perseverative cognition (i.e., rumination and worry), MW did not predict the presence of health risk factors 1 year later, however, a higher occurrence of episodes of MW was associated with short-term adverse consequences, such as increased 24-h heart rate (HR) on the same day and difficulty falling asleep the subsequent night. Present findings suggest that MW may be associated with short term "side effects" but argue against a long term dysfunctional view of this cognitive process.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberArticle 524
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberAUG
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Ecological momentary assessment
  • Heart rate
  • Heart rate variability
  • Mind wandering
  • Prospective study
  • Sleep
  • Somatization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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