Mind-wandering rates fluctuate across the day: evidence from an experience-sampling study

Gabriel King Smith, Caitlin Mills, Alexandra Paxton, Kalina Christoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Previous research has demonstrated reliable fluctuations in attentional processes during the course of the day. Everyday life experience sampling, during which participants respond to “probes” delivered at random intervals throughout the day on their mobile devices, is an effective tool for capturing such diurnal fluctuations in a naturalistic way. The existence of diurnal fluctuations in the case of mind-wandering, however, has not been examined to date. We did so in two studies. In the first study, we employed everyday experience sampling to obtain self-reports from 146 university students who rated the degree of free movement in their thoughts multiple times per day over five days. These time course data were analyzed using multilevel modelling. Freely moving thought was found to fluctuate reliably over the course of the day, with lower ratings reported in the early morning and afternoon and higher ratings around midday and evening. In the second study, we replicated these effects with a reanalysis of data from a past everyday experience-sampling study. We also demonstrated differences in parameter values for the models representing freely moving thought and two common conceptualizations of mind-wandering: task-unrelated thought and stimulus-independent thought. Taken together, the present results establish and replicate a complex pattern of change over the course of the day in how freely thought moves, while also providing further evidence that freedom of movement is dissociable from other dimensions of thought such as its task-relatedness and stimulus-dependence. Future research should focus on probing possible mechanisms behind circadian fluctuations of thought dynamics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number54
JournalCognitive Research: Principles and Implications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, The Author(s).


  • Attention
  • Circadian rhythms
  • Daily change
  • Experience sampling
  • Freely moving thought
  • Mind wandering
  • Stimulus-independent thought
  • Task-unrelated thought


Dive into the research topics of 'Mind-wandering rates fluctuate across the day: evidence from an experience-sampling study'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this