Clearly, whether we are asleep or awake does, typically, tend to make a difference to the degree of perceptual coupling of which we are capable at that time. Yet, I am tempted to say that whether we are asleep or awake does not matter nearly as much as we tend to assume to the types of spontaneous thoughts and experiences we undergo in either state. Whether this idea extends to EMW is a further question.
Christoff, K., Irving, Z. C., Fox, K. C., Spreng, R. N., & Andrews-Hanna, J. R. (2016). Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: a dynamic framework. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 17(11), 718-731.
Such a comparison between dreaming and EMW is theoretically relevant, I believe, because dreams are plausible candidates for minimal perceptual coupling. Placing dreams and EMW on opposite ends of a spectrum of perceptually (de-)coupled spontaneous thoughts, we can now ask:
- Does it make a difference to the subjective experience of EMW whether we are scrolling through pictures or text? How does what we see on the screen affect our tendency to think in pictures vs. words, and if the latter, do we “hear” these words as if in our own voice or the voice of another? And so on for listening to music or a podcast, static images vs. films, etc.
- Do immersive forms of EMW exist? How (if at all) would interacting with other technologies change the phenomenology of EMW? For example, if we were able to spontaneously and freely drift through a virtual environment in much the way that we can flit from one post to another in a social media feed on our phones, would this be an extended analogue of our most immersive daydreams? That is, assuming that we can feel present in our daydreams in a similar way to our sleep dreams, can EMW also be immersive? Or does the perceptual coupling involved in EMW keep us experientially rooted in the real world and in our physical bodies, preventing us from fully entering imagined ones?
Seli, P., Kane, M. J., Smallwood, J., Schacter, D. L., Maillet, D., Schooler, J. W., & Smilek, D. (2018). Mind-wandering as a natural kind: A family-resemblances view. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(6), 479-490.
Inspiration for asking these questions comes from definitions of dreaming. The so-called simulation theory of dreaming (Revonsuo et al. 2015) describes dreams as here-and-now experiences: dreams are immersive, we feel present in the dream world and identify with a dream self, where both typically diverge from our actual environments and physical bodies.
A small but increasing literature in recent years has focused on how dreaming is related to waking mind wandering. Christoff and colleagues (2016) have proposed that dreaming is an intensified form of waking mind wandering: on measures of deliberate constraints, or cognitive control, dreaming lies at the opposite end of the spectrum to goal-directed thought, with mind wandering occupying an intermediate position.
Revonsuo, A., Tuominen, J., & Valli, K. (2015). The avatars in the machine: Dreaming as a simulation of social reality. In Open Mind. Open MIND. Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group.
- Does the degree of perceptual coupling make a difference to the content, dynamics, as well as the experiential quality of spontaneous thought (including its imagistic vs. propositional and potentially immersive quality)?
As B&F note, definitions of mind wandering as task-unrelated and/or stimulus-independent thought focus on the content of thoughts at a time, whereas the dynamic framework (Christoff et al. 2016) takes into account transitions between thought contents and types of thought over time. To this, we can add more phenomenologically focused questions. We can think in words or sentences, and we can experience imagery in different sensory modalities. Imagery can also be immersive or non-immersive. (Consider, here, the difference between an immersive VR experience and watching a movie on a conventional cinema or TV screen. In the former case, you feel present in the virtual world and possibly even identify with an avatar, a virtual self; in the latter, you observe the movie from the outside.)
Jelle Bruineberg and Regina Fabry invite us to welcome a new member into the mind wandering family: extended mind wandering (EMW), of which their central example is habitual, diversionary smartphone use. Their proposal builds upon second-wave extended mind theories and mind wandering (MW) research.
However, whether we are awake or asleep may not make as big a difference to the experiential quality of spontaneous thoughts and experiences we undergo in either state as is often assumed: While we might want to say that dreams are immersive, propositional thoughts and non-immersive imagery can occur in sleep and at sleep onset. Similarly, waking mind wandering can occur in imagistic and propositional formats, and I think it is an open question whether the most immersive forms of imagistic MW—call them daydreams—differ in the feeling of presence from sleep-dreams (Windt 2021). What we can add to these questions, thanks to B&F, is whether similar heterogeneity is seen in the subjective experience of EMW.
Adopting Seli and colleagues’ (2018) family resemblances view, B&F argue that perceptual decoupling is not a necessary characteristic of MW. Perceptually coupled EMW can occur in the presence or absence of a task (trying to listen to a lecture vs. queuing for coffee), may or may not have been initiated intentionally, and can occur with and without awareness. This is a rich, multi-faceted, and thought-provoking proposal. Rather than probing its details, I wish to raise some questions that can hopefully add a further layer of complexity to an already rich discussion.
Windt, J. M. (2021). How deep is the rift between conscious states in sleep and wakefulness? Spontaneous experience over the sleep–wake cycle. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 376(1817), 20190696.
B&F offer a variety of examples of EMW, but all involve scrolling through a social media feed on one’s phone. Keeping this factor constant sharpens the contrast between the other factors. I wonder whether varying this factor would lead to a more heterogeneous account of what it’s like to engage in EMW. (This assumes that EMW, qua mind wandering, is a form not just of spontaneous thought, but of spontaneous thinking—and hence, that as for other forms of thinking, there is something it is like to engage in it.) Specifically: