Many jobs demand total attention 100 per cent of the time, yet minds can – and will – wander. A recent University of British Columbia (UBC) study recasts daydreaming as a human need, and an important and useful cognitive state. This new understanding could be the first step in finding an ergonomic solution for the times when mind wandering is inappropriate, even dangerous.
The research team led by UBC psychology professor Kalina Christoff found that brain areas associated with complex problem-solving, previously thought to go dormant when we daydream, switch instead to high activity.
For the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, subjects were placed inside an fMRI scanner, where they performed the simple routine task of pushing a button when numbers appear on a screen. The researchers tracked subjects’ attentiveness moment-to-moment through brain scans, subjective reports from subjects and by tracking their performance on the task.
Until now, the brain’s “default network” – which is linked to easy, routine mental activity and includes the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), the posterior cingulate cortex and the temporoparietal junction – was the only part of the brain thought to be active when our minds wander. The study found that the brain’s “executive network” – associated with high-level, complex problem-solving and including the lateral PFC and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – also becomes activated when we daydream.
“This is a surprising finding, that these two brain networks are activated in parallel,” says Christoff in the recent UBC news release about the study. “Until now, scientists have thought they operated on an either-or basis – when one was activated, the other was thought to be dormant.” The less subjects were aware that their mind was wandering, the more both networks were activated.
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.
The research team included members who are now at Stanford University and University of California, Santa Barbara, according to the news release.
Source: University of British Columbia