Daydreaming means you’re smart and creative

It also enables you to switch to "autopilot" for routine tasks like driving
November 1, 2017

MRI scan showing regions of the default mode network, involved in daydreaming (credit: C C)

Daydreaming during meetings or class might actually be a sign that you’re smart and creative, according to a Georgia Institute of Technology study.

“People with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering,” said Eric Schumacher, an associate psychology professor who co-authored a research paper published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

Participants were instructed to focus on a stationary fixation point for five minutes in an MRI machine. Functional MRI (fMRI), which measures changes in brain oxygen levels as a proxy for neural activity, was used.

The researchers examined that data to find correlated brain patterns (parts of the brain that worked together) between the daydreaming “default mode network” (DMN)* and two other brain networks. The team compared that data with tests of the participants that measured their intellectual and creative ability and with a questionnaire about how much a participant’s mind wandered in daily life.**

Is your brain efficient?

The scientists found a correlation between mind wandering and fluid intelligence, creative ability, and more efficient brain systems.

How can you tell if your brain is efficient? One clue is that you can zone in and out of conversations or tasks when appropriate, then naturally tune back in without missing important points or steps, according to Schumacher. He says higher efficiency also means more capacity to think and the ability to mind-wander when performing easy tasks.

“Our findings remind me of the absent-minded professor — someone who’s brilliant, but off in his or her own world, sometimes oblivious to their own surroundings,” said Schumacher. “Or school children who are too intellectually advanced for their classes. While it may take five minutes for their friends to learn something new, they figure it out in a minute, then check out and start daydreaming.”

The study also involved researchers at the University of New Mexico, U.S. Army Research Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania, and Charles River Analytics. It was funded by the National Science Foundation and based on work supported by the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).

Performing on autopilot

However, recent research at the University of Cambridge published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences showed that daydreaming also plays an important role in allowing us to switch to “autopilot” once we are familiar with a task.

“Rather than waiting passively for things to happen to us, we are constantly trying to predict the environment around us,” says Deniz Vatansever, who carried out the study as part of his PhD at the University of Cambridge and who is now based at the University of York.

“Our evidence suggests it is the default mode network that enables us do this. It is essentially like an autopilot that helps us make fast decisions when we know what the rules of the environment are. So for example, when you’re driving to work in the morning along a familiar route, the default mode network will be active, enabling us to perform our task without having to invest lots of time and energy into every decision.”

In the study, 28 volunteers took part in a task while lying inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Functional MRI (fMRI) was also used.

This new study supports an idea expounded upon by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics laureate 2002, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: that there are two systems that help us make decisions — a rational system that helps us reach calculated decisions, and a fast system that allows us to make intuitive decisions. The new research suggests this latter system may be linked with the DMN.

The researchers believe their findings have relevance to brain injury, particularly following traumatic brain injury, where problems with memory and impulsivity can substantially compromise social reintegration. They say the findings may also have relevance for mental health disorders, such as addiction, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder — where particular thought patterns drive repeated behaviors — and with the mechanisms of anesthetic agents and other drugs on the brain.

* In 2001, scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine found that a collection of brain regions appeared to be more active during such states of rest. This network was named the “default mode network.” While it has since been linked to, among other things, daydreaming, thinking about the past, planning for the future, and creativity, its precise function is unclear.

** Specifically, the researchers examined the extent to which the default mode network (DMN), along with the dorsal attention network (DAN) and frontoparietal control network (FPCN), correlate with the tendency to mind wandering in daily life, based on a five-minute resting state fMRI scan. They also used measures of executive function, fluid intelligence (Ravens), and creativity (Remote Associates Task).

Abstract of Functional connectivity within and between intrinsic brain networks correlates with trait mind wandering

Individual differences across a variety of cognitive processes are functionally associated with individual differences in intrinsic networks such as the default mode network (DMN). The extent to which these networks correlate or anticorrelate has been associated with performance in a variety of circumstances. Despite the established role of the DMN in mind wandering processes, little research has investigated how large-scale brain networks at rest relate to mind wandering tendencies outside the laboratory. Here we examine the extent to which the DMN, along with the dorsal attention network (DAN) and frontoparietal control network (FPCN) correlate with the tendency to mind wander in daily life. Participants completed the Mind Wandering Questionnaire and a 5-min resting state fMRI scan. In addition, participants completed measures of executive functionfluid intelligence, and creativity. We observed significant positive correlations between trait mind wandering and 1) increased DMN connectivity at rest and 2) increased connectivity between the DMN and FPCN at rest. Lastly, we found significant positive correlations between trait mind wandering and fluid intelligence (Ravens) and creativity (Remote Associates Task). We interpret these findings within the context of current theories of mind wandering and executive function and discuss the possibility that certain instances of mind wandering may not be inherently harmful. Due to the controversial nature of global signal regression (GSReg) in functional connectivity analyses, we performed our analyses with and without GSReg and contrast the results from each set of analyses.

Abstract of Default mode contributions to automated information processing

Concurrent with mental processes that require rigorous computation and control, a series of automated decisions and actions govern our daily lives, providing efficient and adaptive responses to environmental demands. Using a cognitive flexibility task, we show that a set of brain regions collectively known as the default mode network plays a crucial role in such “autopilot” behavior, i.e., when rapidly selecting appropriate responses under predictable behavioral contexts. While applying learned rules, the default mode network shows both greater activity and connectivity. Furthermore, functional interactions between this network and hippocampal and parahippocampal areas as well as primary visual cortex correlate with the speed of accurate responses. These findings indicate a memory-based “autopilot role” for the default mode network, which may have important implications for our current understanding of healthy and adaptive brain processing.