Daydreaming helps brain tackle complex problems

May 12th, 2009 - 2:18 pm ICT by IANS  

Toronto, May 12 (IANS) Daydreaming might not be such a bad thing after all. It helps the brain tackle life’s more complex problems, a new study has found.
“Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness,” said study co-author, Kalina Christoff, psychologist at the University of British Columbia (UBC), who led the research.

“But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream - much more active than when we focus on routine tasks,” she added.

“When you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal - say reading a book or paying attention in class - but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships,” said Christoff.

The quantity and quality of brain activity suggests that people struggling to solve complicated problems might be better off switching to a simpler task and letting their mind wander.

For the study, subjects were placed inside an fMRI scanner, where they performed the simple routine task of pushing a button when numbers appear on a screen.

Researchers tracked subjects’ attentiveness moment-to-moment through brain scans, subjective reports from participants and by tracking their performance.

The findings suggest that daydreaming - which can occupy as much as a third of our waking lives - is an important cognitive state where we may unconsciously turn our attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems in our lives.

Until now, the brain’s “default network” - which is linked to easy, routine mental activity was the only part of the brain thought to be active when our minds wander, said an UBC release.

However, the study finds that the brain’s “executive network” - associated with high-level, complex problem-solving, also becomes activated when we daydream.

“This is a surprising finding, that these two brain networks are activated in parallel,” said Christoff. “Until now, scientists have thought they operated on an either-or basis - when one was activated, the other was thought to be dormant,” said Christoff.

The less subjects were aware that their mind was wandering, the more both networks were activated.

These findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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