Medicine for the wandering mind: mind wandering in medical practice


Dr Jonathan Smallwood, Max Planck Institute for Brain and Cognition, Social and Affective Neuroscience, Stephanstrasse, Leipzig 40103, Germany. Tel: 00 49 341 9940 000; Fax: 00 49 341 9940 2448; E-mail:


Medical Education 2011: 45: 1072–1080

Context  Mind wandering – defined as a cognitive focus on information that is unrelated to immediate sensory input or the task at hand – is a ubiquitous characteristic of the human condition. When it occurs, the integrity of a wide range of cognitive skills can be compromised.

Objectives  The current paper describes the phenomenon of mind wandering, explores its potential role in medical practice and considers how the education system may profitably control this ubiquitous cognitive state.

Methods  We argue that because many aspects of a medical professional’s work (such as fatigue and depression) maximise the mind’s tendency to wander, this experience is likely to be a common occurrence in many medical situations. We then review the psychological literature on mind wandering as it relates to medical practice.

Conclusions  Based on this review, we suggest that because mind wandering interferes with an individual’s ability to integrate current events into a more general context, its occurrence may lead to downstream problems in the way that symptoms are interpreted and treated. Finally, because the experience of mind wandering is often both difficult to control and hard to recognise, it is difficult to prevent. We argue that techniques that help individuals to become more mindful have the potential to ameliorate the cost of mind wandering to the medical profession. Given the ubiquitous nature of the experience of mind wandering, the integration of mindfulness training into medical education programmes could be of general benefit to society at large.