Human thought is an amazing thing. It has given us not only science, literature, and morality, but also superstition, slavery, and war.
How much of your mental life is intentional action? And how much of it consists of inaction, not doing anything at all? To answer that, we need to get clear on what we mean by “intentional action” and “inaction.”
When you do something intentionally, you have in mind what you are trying to do. You can tell someone what you’re up to. And in the realm of intentional action, you can do something in order to do something else. You can intend to perform a means to an end. You can do all sorts of things intentionally—snap your fingers, knead dough, run a marathon, paint a wall. When you do any of those things, you have in mind what you’re trying to do; you can tell someone what you’re up to; and you might even have a further end in mind.
Inaction, by definition, does not involve acting on some goal or trying to do anything at all. Sometimes we call physical inaction “lying around,” which implies that your body is not moving much, but that can be misleading. A physically inactive person’s heart is beating, and her lungs are expanding and contracting. In this context, inaction does not mean total lack of movement. When you're inactive, you simply go with the flow.
The same applies for mental inaction: it doesn’t imply that your thoughts are stationary (whatever that might mean). Rather, mental inaction involves going with the flow again—that means the stream of consciousness, wherever it might take you. This kind of thought is what philosopher and cognitive scientist Zac Irving has studied under the label “mind-wandering:” it’s the kind of thought that doesn’t involve guiding your attention to any particular thing at all. This lack of guidance means you just let your mind run wherever it feels like running.
Such mental inaction contrasts with directed thought of various kinds. You can do all sorts of things intentionally in thought. You can intentionally recall what you ate for breakfast. You can intentionally solve a math problem in your head. Doing any of these things involves guiding your thoughts in a particular way.
Now that we’ve gotten a better understanding of what we’re talking about, we can ask our question again. How much of your mental life is taken up by action, and how much inaction?
The best way to study this is to sample people’s lived experience as they are going about their daily lives. For instance, you can ping people’s phones at random moments over the course of a few days and ask them questions about their present thoughts in order to probe whether those thoughts are intentional or not—for our purposes, active or inactive. Many studies in the last decade or so have done studies of exactly this kind. The explosion of research suggests that mind wandering can take up to half the time of your mental life. Based partly on this research, the philosopher Thomas Metzinger has suggested that you lack mental autonomy in two thirds of your mental life.
But there is a serious problem with these empirical studies—at least as they apply to our question. They don’t really probe whether thinkers are engaged in intentional mental action or not. That is because the questions that they ask people to answer don’t settle that.
The first question these studies usually ask after the ‘ping’ is about whether your thoughts at the time of the ‘ping’ were related to your activity or not. Mills et al. asked “Were you thinking about something other than what you were doing?” Jazaieri et al. asked “Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?” Similarly, Kane et al. and Song and Wang asked participants to rate whether “my mind had wandered to something other than what I was doing.”
These questions make it sound as though there is just one thing that a person is doing at a time. Moreover, the setup of these studies encourages participants to think about that one thing as the unique external task they are supposed to be working on. That could be solving a math problem, or cooking dinner, or something else. When asked, then, whether they were thinking about the thing they were doing, participants just assess whether their thoughts at the time are related to that one target.
But your thoughts at any time could be related to a great many targets. Indeed, many kinds of distractions come about when you realize you could be doing something else in thought—planning your dinner, for example. If you stop thinking about your external task and start doing one of these things, you haven’t relinquished your mental autonomy. In fact, it might look as though you have asserted your mental autonomy in another kind of intentional action, which you simply felt like doing at the time. You can intentionally plan your dinner, even if that is not what you are supposed to be doing at the moment.
Even if your distracted, off-task thoughts do wander from place to place that itself can be intentional. This is a point Fabian Dorsch and Zac Irving have made. Sometimes your thoughts simply wander. But sometimes you intentionally let your thoughts wander. To say that you do this intentionally is to say that you have in mind what you’re trying to do; you could tell someone what you’re up to (letting your mind wander…); and you could do that as a means to an end (resting your mind).
The better studies recognize this possibility, and they ask subjects explicitly whether they were letting their minds wander “on purpose” or “deliberately”. If we look at how participants responded to this question, we get a quite different picture of the scope of mental agency than the one we considered above. The incidence of mind-wandering in these random samples of everyday life varies from around 30% to about 60%. But in each study that tested for purposeful mind-wandering, about half of those instances of mind-wandering are classified by participants as purposeful. As Kane and colleagues put it, “On occasions when subjects reported off-task thought, they generally expressed little surprise that their mind had wandered, and indicated that they had mentally disengaged on purpose.” That sounds a lot like intentional action to me.
If we count intentional mind-wandering as intentional mental action then we can estimate that intentional mental action makes up about 65 – 80% of our mental lives. That’s a far cry from the erosion of agency and mental autonomy that some claim the research into mind-wandering suggests.
What should we learn from this? At least, we should see that mind-wandering and intentional mental action are compatible. The research into mind-wandering doesn’t tell us all we want to know about intentional mental action, nor about mental agency or autonomy more generally. But it also suggests that we should come up with better questions to ask people in order to probe how often they engage in intentional mental actions. To their credit, Mills et al. were doing just that. I’m excited to see the next stage in research into mind wandering.