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A paper Killingsworth et al., A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, Science 12 November 2010: 932 (or a free pdf) starts with the following statement:

Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. Indeed, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation (1-3).

While the claim is supported for humans by the cited papers and their finding:

Mind wandering occurred in 46.9% of the samples and in at least 30% of the samples taken during every activity except making love.

I couldn't find a strong evidence that for all other animals it is not true. Even if it, arguably, may sound plausible for domestic animals, it seems less convincing for primates, elephants or dolphins (without a proper experimental support).

Are there any research on "wandering mind" for other animals? If so, do they support or refute the "unlike other animals" line?

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2 Answers 2

It seems that it is still a matter of debate whether animals are capable of mind wandering. For instance, there are a lot of publications about foresight, a future directed instance of mind wandering. Much of it comes from one group, e.g.,

Suddendorf T, Corballis MC. (2007) The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behav Brain Sci. 30(3):299-313; discussion 313-51.

Suddendorf T, Corballis MC. (2010) Behavioural evidence for mental time travel in nonhuman animals. Behav Brain Res. 215(2):292-8.

But, for a review see:

Cheke Lucy G., Clayton Nicola S.. Mental time travel in animals. WIREs Cogn Sci 2010, 1: 915-930.

Or for a quite current example, see:

Osvath M, Karvonen E. (2012;7) Spontaneous innovation for future deception in a male chimpanzee. PLoS One (5):e36782.

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can you give a quick summary of what the Suddendorf & Corballis group typically conclude? –  Artem Kaznatcheev May 24 '12 at 2:53

This is related to very interesting questions about the specific biological structures that evolved in the brains of our primate ancestors that differentiated them from all other animals in terms of human cognitive abilities and how that "new wiring" unleashed such fantastic human creativity in every field of art, music, science and technology. It seems that the consciousness of other animals operate essentially in "real-time" mode whereas humans can access their memories at any time, even when the external stimulus is no longer present. It's almost like there is some kind of gate between conscious awareness and our memory patterns. In other animals that gate is closed when the stimulus is no longer present (vision, scent, sound, taste, etc). A dog, for example, no longer thinks about the fire or the squirrel it was chasing once the sensual inputs are no longer present. Humans, on the other hand, whether day-dreaming about the vacation they are planning, or contemplating the steak they had at yesterday's BBQ, have no difficulty with this type of thinking. Is this because some form of an open neural gate evolved in humans which allowed ones memories to be accessed at any time and thought about?

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You make a claim. Do you have any scientific arguments supporting it? –  Piotr Migdal Jun 15 at 19:41
    
Not sure what claim you mean. I ended with a question after speculating on what could account for observable differences between human and other animal behavior. –  Steve d'Apollonia Jun 16 at 2:02
    
You claim that animals live in the present and do not daydream. Do you have any other proof for that (other than your personal opinion)? For example, I do not know what happens in the dog's mind. –  Piotr Migdal Jun 16 at 9:34
    
I've never seen any clear evidence that a dog daydreams. I've seen sleeping dogs appear to be dreaming, but that's different than wakeful contemplation. There's simply no evidence for it. I see no point in trying to prove a negative. –  Steve d'Apollonia Jun 16 at 20:28

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