Précis of Extended Mind-Wandering

Have you ever scrolled through a social media feed on your smartphone without a particular purpose or goal? Were you trying to focus on something else, like listening to a talk, or did you have a few moments to spare, such as when waiting for a train? Did you initiate your scrolling, or did you suddenly find yourself scrolling? Psychologists refer to this behavior with a range of notions, including habitual smartphone use, absent-minded smartphone use, and smartphone-related inattentiveness. When we first got interested in this phenomenon, we realized that little philosophical work had been dedicated to its systematic analysis. Further, we were developing the idea that this kind of smartphone use potentially has important normative implications. After all, habitual use seems to be a design feature of social media platforms operating within the attention economy.

In “Extended Mind-Wandering“, we argue that episodes of habitual smartphone use can be fruitfully analyzed as canonical cases of extended mind-wandering. To make the point, we develop a framework that integrates research on the extended mind, mind-wandering, and empirical work on habitual smartphone use. This requires some philosophical work: research on the extended mind has, by and large, focused on harmonious interactions between humans and technology (Aagaard, 2021). Moreover, much of the literature focuses, sometimes even by definition, on the involvement of extra-bodily resources in the completion of cognitive tasks. Mind-wandering is a cognitive process that cannot qualify as a cognitive task. The harmony bias and the task bias might explain in part why extended mind research has, as far as we are aware, not studied task-unrelated extended cognition.

The phrase extended mind-wandering might sound like a contradiction in terms of many mind-wandering researchers. After all, mind-wandering was initially defined, in part, in terms of perceptual decoupling from the environment. All cases of extended cognition, by definition, involve coupling to the environment. More recently, however, mind-wandering researchers of various stripes have suggested that perceptual decoupling is not a necessary condition for mind-wandering. Furthermore, some theorists have proposed a family resemblances framework of mind-wandering (Seli et al., 2018). According to this account, none of the following characteristics of mind-wandering, which have been identified and discussed in previous research, are necessary: perceptual decoupling, task-unrelatedness, attentional unguidedness, (lack of) meta-awareness, (lack of) intentionality. Rather, particular episodes of mind-wandering will have at least some of these characteristics.

Once we give up on the idea that perceptual decoupling is a necessary characteristic of mind-wandering and adopt the family resemblances framework, it becomes clear that extended mind-wandering is continuous with non-extended mind-wandering. The framework that we develop allows for a more nuanced normative assessment of the various forms of mind-wandering. The costs and benefits of different forms of mind-wandering might be very different. For example, while intentionally initiated mind-wandering might provide a beneficial relief from boredom, a mind-wandering episode that lacks intentionality and occurs in the presence of another task might not provide the same beneficial relief.

The conceptual framework for extended mind-wandering that we develop in the paper brings a number of comparative issues into view. In the more explorative part of the paper, we examine the plausibility of two theses:

The replacement thesis: Extended mind-wandering competes for the same cognitive resources as non-extended mind-wandering and seems to partially replace non-extended mind-wandering. 

The functionality thesis: Extended mind-wandering shares the costs of non-extended mind-wandering, but does not share the benefits, especially concerning self-insight. 

Although we find direct evidence lacking, there is some circumstantial evidence for the replacement thesis. For example, Diefenbach and Borrmann (2019) find that boredom and the need to belong are drivers of smartphone use during alone time. In line with this, Aranda and Baig (2018) identify checking habits to resist boredom and the shared expectation to be constantly available to others as two behavioral cycles that drive smartphone use. Together, they provide some initial support for the idea that habitual and diversionary smartphone use in the absence of a task is preferred to staying alone with your thoughts.

Considering the functionality thesis, there is quite some evidence that both extended and non-extended mind-wandering interfere with the performance of a task. For example, and unsurprisingly, both forms of mind-wandering impair driving performance. The more controversial and interesting part of the functionality thesis pertains to the differences in benefits. Diefenbach and Borrmann (2019) find that smartphone use during alone time is not correlated with self-reflection, but negatively correlated with self-insight. This suggests that smartphone use does foster self-reflection, but not of the kind that leads to self-insight. Building forth on D’Argembeau (2018), it might be the case that non-extended mind-wandering tends to be about self-related information in a way that extended mind-wandering is not. Importantly, the costs and benefits of both forms of mind-wandering extend far beyond concurrent task performance. If we follow Sherry Turkle, extended mind-wandering might be impacting our sense of self and our social relationships across time.

There is a number of reasons why the study of extended mind-wandering, as we conceptualize it, is important. One of them is that this kind of habitual and diversionary smartphone use seems to be a design feature of social media platforms. The attention economy denotes the economic system in which human attention is the scarce commodity and in which digital platforms compete with one another for the user’s attention. The digital environments these platforms create are designed to be visited often, and for sustained periods of time, by their users. This arguably makes extended mind-wandering an important manifestation of the cognitive effects of living in the attention economy.

We hope that our framework can inspire future research on extended cognition and mind-wandering. Our theoretical considerations are certainly open to revision and refinement, and we are looking forward to many fruitful discussions. However, we are also hopeful that our exploration of the replacement thesis and the functionality thesis can inspire empirical research that directly investigates the cognitive characteristics and effects of habitual and diversionary smartphone use. Ultimately, our framework might contribute to the normative assessment of the moral, social, and political roles of digital technologies for our lives that is currently under way.


Aagaard, J. (2021). 4E cognition and the dogma of harmony. Philosophical Psychology34(2), 165–181.

Aranda, J. H., & Baig, S. (2018). Toward” JOMO”: The joy of missing out and the freedom of disconnecting. Proceedings of the 20th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services, 1–8.

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.

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.

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 Sciences22(6), 479–490.

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