One observation from the last decade in both cognitive science and neuroscience is that prospection (the ability to think about the future) is important for humans because it allows the mind to prepare for events that may occur in the future. While this has largely been studied in explicit goal directed future thinking in the laboratory, in the last few months studies have begun to explore how such prospection operates during mind wandering; at the heart of the capacity to think about the future is the capacity for self or autobiographical memory. In one study published in a journal called Acta Psychologia, Stawarcyzk and colleagues demonstrated that Belgian participants tend to think more about the future during mind wandering if they were primed with a list of their personal goals prior to performing a simple task. In a similar vein, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, we demonstrated that this prospective bias arises because of the saliency of self referent information. In our studies (published in a journal called Consciousness and Cognition) participants were more likely to think about their personal futures during mind wandering (rather than past) if they were asked to rate as set of adjectives applied to themselves, rather than to either their best friend or the current UK prime minister or to a control group. In a second study, participants who engaged in the most future thinking during mind wandering showed the strongest memory for self rated adjectives. Together these two different studies demonstrate that autobiographical memory is at the heart of the capacity to mentally escape the here and now and engage in future thinking during the mind wandering state.
Mind-wandering is a product of spontaneous, internally generated thought