Out brains are much more active while daydreaming than previously thought, if a new study is to be believed.
Conducted by researchers at the University of British Colombia, the study has shown that activity in numerous brain regions increases when a person’s mind wanders.
It has also found that brain areas linked with complex problem-solving, which were previously thought to go dormant while daydreaming, remain highly active during such episodes.
"Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness. But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks," says lead author, Prof. Kalina Christoff, UBC Department of Psychology.
During the study, the researchers placed the subjects inside an fMRI scanner, where they performed the simple routine task of pushing a button when numbers appear on a screen.
The research team tracked the participants’ attentiveness moment-to-moment through brain scans, subjective reports from the subjects, and by tracking their performance on the task.
They found daydreaming to be an important cognitive state in which one may unconsciously turn one’s attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems.
Scientists have to date thought that 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 – is the only part of the brain that is active while a person’s mind wanders.
However, the latest study has shown 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 gets activated while people daydream.
"This is a surprising finding, that these two brain networks are activated in parallel. Until now, scientists have thought they operated on an either-or basis – when one was activated, the other was thought to be dormant," says Christoff.
According to the researchers, the less the participants 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.
"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," says Christoff.
A research article on the study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.