thomas_metzinger's picture
Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz; Adjunct Fellow, Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Study; Author, The Ego Tunnel
Cognitive Agency

Thinking is not something you do. Most of the time it is something that happens to you. Cutting-edge research on the phenomenon of Mind Wandering now clearly shows how almost all of us, for more than two thirds of their conscious lifetime, are not in control of their conscious thought processes.

Western culture, traditional philosophy of mind and even cognitive neuroscience have been deeply influenced by the Myth of Cognitive Agency. It is the myth of the Cartesian Ego, the active thinker of thoughts, the epistemic subject that acts—mentally, rationally, in a goal-directed manner—and that always has the capacity to terminate or suspend its own cognitive processing at will. It is the theory that conscious thought is a personal-level process, something that by necessity has to be ascribed to you, the person as a whole. This theory has now been empirically refuted. As it now turns out, most of our conscious thoughts are actually the product of subpersonal processes, like breathing or the peristaltic movements in our gastrointestinal tract. The Myth of Cognitive Agency says that we are mentally autonomous beings. We can now see that this is an old, but self-complacent fairy tale. It is time to put it to rest.

Recent studies in the booming research field of Mind Wandering show that we spend roughly two thirds of our conscious life-time zoning out—daydreaming, lost in fantasies, autobiographical planning, inner narratives or depressive rumination. Depending on the study, 30-50% of our waking life is occupied by spontaneously occurring stimulus and task-unrelated thought. Mind Wandering probably has positive aspects too, because it is associated with creativity, careful future planning, or the encoding of long-term memories. But its overall performance costs (for example, in terms of reading comprehension, memory, sustained attention tasks, or working memory) are marked and have been well documented. So have its negative effects on general, subjective well-being. A wandering mind clearly is an unhappy mind, but it may only be part of a more comprehensive process beyond the conscious self’s control or understanding. The sudden loss of inner autonomy—which all of us experience many hundred times every day—seems to be based on a cyclically recurring process in the brain. The ebb and flow of autonomy and meta-awareness might well be a kind of attentional see-sawing between our inner and outer worlds, caused by a constant competition between the brain networks underlying spontaneous subpersonal thinking and goal-oriented cognition.

Mind Wandering is not the only way in which our attention gets decoupled from the perception of the Here and Now. There are also periods of "mind blanking", and these episodes may often not be remembered and also frequently escape detection by external observers. In addition, there is clearly complex, but uncontrollable cognitive phenomenology during sleep. Adults spend approximately 1.5– 2 h per night in REM sleep, experiencing dreams in which they are mostly unable to control their conscious thought process. NREM sleep yields similar, dream-like reports during stage 1, whereas other stages of NREM sleep are characterized by mostly cognitive/symbolic mentation—which is typically confused, non-progressive, and perseverative. A conservative estimate would therefore be that for much more than half of our life-time, we are not cognitive agents in the true sense of the word. This still excludes periods of illness, intoxication, or insomnia, in which people suffer from dysfunctional forms of cognitive control, such as thought suppression, worry, rumination, and counterfactual imagery and are plagued by intrusive thoughts, feelings of regret, shame, and guilt while. We do not yet know when and how children actually acquire a conscious self-model that permits controlled, rational thought. But another sad, yet empirically plausible assumption certainly is that most of us gradually lose cognitive autonomy toward the ends of our lives.

Interestingly, the neural correlate of non-autonomous conscious thought overlaps to a considerable degree with ongoing activity in what neuroscientists call the "default mode network". I think that one global function of Mind Wandering may be "autobiographical self-model maintenance". Mind Wandering creates an adaptive form of self-deception, namely, an illusion of personal identity across time. It helps to maintain a fictional "self" that then lays the foundation for important achievements like reward prediction or delay discounting. As a philosopher, my conceptual point is that only if an organism simulates itself as being one and the same across time will it be able to represent reward events or the achievement of goals as a fulfillment of its own goals, as happening to the same entity. I like to call this the "Principle of Virtual Identity Formation": Many higher forms of intelligence and adaptive behavior, including risk management, moral cognition and cooperative social behavior, functionally presuppose a self-model that portrays the organism as a single entity that endures over time. Because we are really only cognitive systems, complex processes without any precise identity criteria, the formation of an (illusory) identity across time can only be achieved on a virtual level, for example through the creation of an automatic narrative. This could be the more fundamental and overarching computational goal of mind wandering, and one it may share with dreaming. If I am right, the default mode of the autobiographical self-modeling constructs a domain-general functional platform enabling long-term motivation and future planning.

Mental autonomy (and how it can be improved) will be one of the hottest topics for the future. There is even a deep link between mental and political autonomy—you cannot sustain one without the other. Because there are not only bodily actions, but also mental actions, autonomy has to do with freedom—and in one of the deepest and most fundamental senses of the word. But the ability to act autonomously implies not only reasons, arguments and rationality. Much more fundamentally it refers to the capacity to wilfully inhibit, suspend, or terminate our own actions—bodily, socially, or mentally. The breakdown of this ability is what we call Mind Wandering. It is not an inner action at all, but a form of unintentional behavior, an involuntary form of mental activity.