By Margarita Nahapetyan
Daydreaming appears to increase an activity in numerous parts of the brain and helps in "complex problem solving," report scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada.
Professor Kalina Christoff, psychologist, head of a neuroscience laboratory of the UBC Department of Psychology and a lead investigator of the study, said that mind wandering is typically associated with negative things, such as idleness or inattentiveness. However, in contrast to common notion, the new findings demonstrate that human brains become very active while daydreaming - much more active than when people try to concentrate on routine tasks, she said.
For the study purposes, scientists at UBC involved 15 young adults and asked them to perform a task where the participants had to push a button when numbers appeared on a screen. During the task, an fMRI machine repeatedly scanned their brains in order to establish what brain parts were being used. At the same time, the investigators asked the participants whether they were concentrating their attention on the button-pushing task. By analyzing brain scans taken when individuals were not focused, researchers were able to examine what regions of the brain were active during daydreaming.
The team found that those regions of the brain that were associated with complex problem solving, called the executive network, were much more active when minds of the participants' wandered. In contrast, the regions of the brain used in routine everyday tasks, called the default network, were switched off during complex problem solving. But when the mind wandered, both networks stayed turned on. Dr. Christoff said that she and her colleagues were trying to determine if there were any other circumstances where these both regions became activated, and that they were able only to find two other circumstances. These circumstances are just before someone arrives at an insight from creative thinking, and watching a movie.
Researchers said that the finding demonstrating that these two parts of the brain can be activated simultaneously is quite surprising, as until now, scientists have always believed that they operated on an either-or basis - when one was activated, the other was supposed to be off. And what is even more, these two networks become even more active when individuals do not realize that their mind is wandering. "That is an unexpected finding," Christoff said. "Mind-wandering without awareness is the most potent kind of mind -wandering."
The new results suggest that daydreaming -- which can occupy as much as one third of our waking lives-- is a very important state of mind where we may unconsciously switch our attention from immediate tasks to think over important problems in our lives. The conclusion of the research is that, if someone is really trying to solve a complex problem, it might be better to switch to something less problematic and letting the mind wander for a little bit and then go back to that issue. This way, the experts say, there is a better chance to obtain additional resources for the real problem.
The findings are detailed in the May 11 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.