Extended mind-wandering and cognitive rail-roading

Maiese, M. (2022). Mindshaping, enactivism, and ideological oppression. Topoi41(2), 341-354.

  1. The Replacement Thesis: That in competing for the same cognitive resources as non-extended mind-wandering, extended mind-wandering might come to replace non-extended mind-wandering. 
  2. The Functionality Thesis: That extended mind-wandering might share the costs of non-extended cases but does not share the benefits. 

Diefenbach, S., & Borrmann, K. (2019). The smartphone as a pacifier and its consequences: Young adults’ smartphone usage in moments of solitude and correlations to self-reflection. Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300536
Notably Bruineberg & Fabry specifically consider extended mind-wandering in the context of smartphone use. However, I take it that extended mind-wandering can occur in cases that do not involve digital devices at all. Doodling could be a case of extended mind-wandering, e.g., where our student Robert finds his thoughts drifting from the lecture as he doodles patterns in his notebook. The plausibility of the Functionality Thesis, therefore, may depend on whether one considers mind-wandering extended via digital or non-digital means. In future research, it would be interesting to test if there is something specific about digitally extended mind-wandering that impedes the benefits of mind-wandering or whether this is a feature of all extended cases. 
All of this is to say is that future research on digitally extended-mind wandering needs to take a fine-grained approach that investigates not simply the difference between extended and non-extended mind-wandering but the way in which different digital platforms and non-digital resources give rise to different kinds of mind-wandering and their related costs and benefits. If our mind-wandering extends, then questions of environmental content and design are important. 
D’’Argembeau, A. (2018). Mind-wandering and self-referential thought. In K. C. R. Fox & K. Christoff (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of spontaneous thought: Mind wandering, creativity, and dreaming (pp. 181–191). Oxford University Press.
Crucially, though, if the content and design of digital platforms impact the kind of mind-wandering we engage in, then we must consider how this occurs across different digital platforms. Although Bruineberg & Fabry use “smartphone use” as a shorthand for any mobile phone scrolling activity, what this shorthand masks is the multitude of platforms and apps that could extend mind-wandering. Our friend Amanda could pick up her smartphone and absentmindedly scroll through her Twitter feed or her outlook calendar or her Google Photos or use a doodling app to scribble on. It is not clear that all these examples tie smartphone use to a desire for constant online connection, nor to a fear of being alone with one’s thoughts – dimensions of smartphone use that we might think inhibit self-insightful mind-wandering. Indeed, absentmindedly scrolling through one’s calendar, Google Photos, or digital doodling, seem commensurate with mind-wandering around topics of personal experience, anticipation of plans, and evaluation of one’s life – topics supposedly rich for self-insight. Different platforms might railroad Amanda’s mind-wandering in different directions and to different degrees. 
In their paper “Extended Mind-Wandering”, Jelle Bruineberg and Regina E. Fabry suggest that habitual smartphone use can be conceptualised as a form of extended mind-wandering that should be included in the mind-wandering family. In doing so, they helpfully expand the category of mind-wandering, while also bringing non-task related cognitive processes into the extended mind rubric. Having developed their novel account of extended mind-wandering, Bruineberg & Fabry investigate:
Here, I bring some additional ideas to the table about how we should think about and investigate the Functionality Thesis. 
Why, though, might digitally extended mind-wandering fail to give rise to self-insight? And, perhaps more interestingly, is it really the case that all kinds of digitally extended mind-wandering inhibit self-insight? Bruineberg & Fabry state that “[e]pisodes of smartphone use that are task-unrelated and intentional or unintentional can be conceptualized as attentionally unguided” (p. 15) –  where one’s thoughts drift from one topic to another during an episode of mind-wandering. Yet, in bringing aspects of the environment into the mind-wandering processes, features of the environment not only support mind-wandering but shape it. In opening up our cognitive processes to the world, we leave such processes open to what is sometimes described as “mind invasion” (Slaby 2016) or “mind shaping” (Maiese 2022; Valentini 2022). Ways in which the environment not only enables the unfolding of cognitive processes but influences how they unfold. 
Valentini, D. (2022). Expanding the Perspectives on Affective Scaffoldings: User-resource interactions and Mind-shaping in Digital Environments. Thaumàzein| Rivista di Filosofia10(1), 189-217. 
Slaby, J. (2016). Mind invasion: Situated affectivity and the corporate life hack. Frontiers in Psychology7, 266.
Scrolling through a digital platform such as Twitter might involve the experience of our thoughts drifting attentionally unguided, while the contents of the site precisely influences the direction and content of our mind-wandering. To borrow from gaming lexicon, we might talk of a cognitive “rail-roading” that occurs in cases of digitally extended mind-wandering. Where the content of the digital platform nudges us towards certain mind-wandering routes or themes.  Routes that do not support mind-wandering around ‘self-related information’. 
Under the Functionality Thesis, the authors explore what the costs and benefits of extended mind-wandering might be and contrast this to cases of non-extended mind-wandering. Drawing from the work of D’Argembeau (2018) and Diefenbach and Borrmann (2019), they tentatively suggest that while non-extended mind-wandering often involves “self-related information – such as personal experiences, anticipation of plans, evaluation of one’s life situation and social relationships” (pp.21-2)  and might support self-insight and a sense of personal identity, extended mind-wandering might not give rise to this kind of self-insight.