Jelle Bruineberg and Regina Fabry’s reply to commentaries on ‘Extended Mind-Wandering’

We are very grateful to Jesper Aagaard, Gloria Andrada, Lucy Osler and Jennifer Windt for providing such insightful questions, suggestions, and considerations on our paper. 

The commentaries address two themes: a set of conceptual questions about the descriptive and normative dimensions of extended mind-wandering, and a set of questions about the variability and heterogeneity of extended mind-wandering. We will engage with our commenters by considering both themes and start with the first.

The main purpose of our work was to develop a descriptive conceptual framework for the theoretical and empirical study of inattentive smartphone use. This framework, we argued, can also help get a better framing of normative questions surrounding this phenomenon. Jesper Aagaard asks whether (unintentional) extended mind-wandering is not just “a clunky synonym for digital distraction”. We have been careful not to draw any intrinsic connections between extended mind-wandering and normative notions such as “digital distraction” or “mind invasion”. As Lucy Osler points out, particular forms of extended mind-wandering, such as scrolling through one’s holiday photos, might be very beneficial, even when not intentional.

Both Jesper Aagaard and Gloria Andrada see an incommensurability between the freedom and spontaneity required for mind-wandering and the “curated”, and sometimes involuntary, features of inattentive smartphone use. Mind-wandering, as Andrada notes, requires one to wander “loosely and freely”; Aagaard argues it is “very hard (if not absurd) to imagine a person ‘wandering’ against their will”. Aagaard’s comment is interesting, since (non-extended) mind-wandering has traditionally been portrayed as “a wasteful mental diversion and potentially dangerous distraction” (Fox & Christoff, 2014, p. 299). As we note in our paper, it is only more recently that the beneficial, creative, and agential aspects of mind-wandering have been appreciated. A similar openness to a differentiated and nuanced assessment of the costs and benefits, we have argued, is needed if we wish to make progress in understanding extended mind-wandering. 

Moreover, we do not share both Andrada’s and Aagaard’s intuition that there is an opposition between extended mind-wandering on the one hand and digital distraction or extended mental manipulation on the other hand, such that any episode of habitual smartphone use qualifies as either of those. More interestingly, we do not see any tension in the assumption of phenomenologically unguided wandering dynamics through a highly curated landscape that is set up to draw the wanderer in particular directions. Osler’s introduction of the term “railroading” in this debate is helpful here. In gaming design, railroading is the activity of guiding a player through the game and only allowing them to wander in directions that further the narrative, while maintaining the illusion of free exploration. While free and unguided from a first person perspective, extended mind-wandering may be highly curated from a third person perspective. 

This leads us to interesting questions about extended mind-wandering and mind invasion raised by Andrada and Osler. One of the main political lessons of work on the extended mind is that environmental components of the mind are more directly open to manipulation and interference than non-environmental components (e.g., Slaby, 2016). This is especially the case in the digital domain where virtually all aspects of the interface and digital environment are designed, often without having the best interest of the user in mind (Williams, 2018).

Concerning the second theme, the variability and diversity of extended mind-wandering, we wish to focus on Jennifer Windt’s invitation to specify the phenomenology of mind-wandering. As we will see, however, it also plays a role in Oslers, Aagaard’s, and Andrada’s contributions. To what extent, Windt asks, does the degree of perceptual coupling across different kinds of spontaneous thinking, ranging from dreaming to non-extended and extended mind-wandering, shape the dynamical unfolding and phenomenological profiles of mental episodes? A proper exploration of this important question requires further theoretical considerations on the commonalities and differences of various kinds of extended and non-extended forms of spontaneous thinking. But it also requires, in the spirit of our replacement and functionality theses, fine-grained empirical research. This research, we suggest, can benefit greatly from methodologies that have been developed in interdisciplinary work on dreaming (e.g., Voss et al., 2013) and non-extended mind-wandering (e.g., Smith et al., 2018). In a second step, the outcomes of empirical research on extended mind-wandering should be related to findings about other extended and non-extended forms of spontaneous thinking. 

Here is another question that is raised by Windt: does it make a difference to the phenomenology of extended mind-wandering whether we are engaging with a text, a video clip, or a GIF, for example, within a given time window? Similarly, Osler suggests that a sufficiently fine-grained approach to extended mind-wandering needs to identify how the (algorithmic) properties of different digital resources (e.g., smartphone apps) influence the dynamics and characteristics of extended mind-wandering episodes. Again, we assume that these are mostly empirical questions. Their investigation will require an interdisciplinary research effort that brings together philosophical theorizing with empirical approaches to spontaneous thinking and human-technology interaction in cognitive psychology, cognitive neuroscience, media studies, and AI research. This empirical work, Aagaard reminds us, will need to do justice to the dynamical patterns of habitual embodied interactions of human organisms with digital resources. In each case, as Andrada notes, these empirically detectable interactions are the outcome of our enculturation in the cognitive niche, which is increasingly shaped by the attention economy.


Fox, K. C. R., & Christoff, K. (2014). Metacognitive facilitation of spontaneous thought processes: When metacognition helps the wandering mind find its way. In S. M. Fleming & C. D. Frith (Eds.), The cognitive neuroscience of metacognition (pp. 293–319). Springer.

Slaby, J. (2016). Mind invasion: Situated affectivity and the corporate life hack. Frontiers in Psychology7.

Smith, G. K., Mills, C., Paxton, A., & Christoff, K. (2018). Mind-wandering rates fluctuate across the day: Evidence from an experience-sampling study. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications3(1), 54.

Voss, U., Schermelleh-Engel, K., Windt, J., Frenzel, C., & Hobson, A. (2013). Measuring consciousness in dreams: The lucidity and consciousness in dreams scale. Consciousness and Cognition22(1), 8–21.

Williams, J. (2018). Stand out of our light: Freedom and resistance in the attention economy. Cambridge University Press.


  1. Paul D. Van Pelt

    Insofar as I don’t quite get the mindwandering-mind invasion distinctions, nor am I certain of how to offer comment here, I’ll just ask a question or two. Firstly, are either of these mind activities considered daydreaming, or, are they simply reflections that occur when a mind is not otherwise engaged? Secondly, have people generally abandoned daydreaming because they haven’t the time? If you have no opinion on either of these questions, I will understand.

  2. Jeffrey White

    It is difficult to distinguish extended mind wandering from any activity elucidated by (ecological) enactivists. Extended mind-wandering might be extended in space, as seems to be the gist, here. Or, it might be extended through time, as would seem to describe life according to eco-enactivism. Whether seeking dynamic equilibrium with norms as entrainment to other-expectations which these accounts seem to identify as ‘higher’ cognition, or interacting with prompts on a cellular phone, without a sense of purpose beyond such norm-seeking, the present account (what another commenter called a “word-salad”) seems a distinction without substance beyond a clever name, a sort of pop-philosophy.

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