Contrary to expectations, daydreaming may improve efficiency, say researchers at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. According to a new study, allowing the mind to wander actually enhances brain performance and prepares it for complex tasks.
The study was published in February, in the American scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to Professor Moshe Bar, director of Bar Ilan’s Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, daydreaming may be useful because of the convergence of “thought-freeing” activity and “thought-controlling” mechanisms in the same region of the brain.
“Over the last 15 or 20 years, scientists have shown that – unlike the localized neural activity associated with specific tasks – mind wandering involves the activation of a gigantic default network [of] many parts of the brain,” Bar told The Times of Israel.
“This cross-brain involvement may be involved in behavioral outcomes such as creativity and mood, and may also contribute to the ability to stay successfully on-task while the mind goes off on its merry mental way.”
During the study, the researchers were also able to dramatically increase the rate of daydreaming using external stimulus, and thus improve performance.
According to Bar, the study shows people do not necessarily have a finite cognitive attention span. “Rather than reducing the subjects’ ability to complete the task, it caused task performance to become slightly improved,” said Bar. “The external stimulation actually enhanced the subjects’ cognitive capacity.”
During the experiment, researchers used transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a low-level electric current which stimulates specific areas of the participants’ brains. The participants were then asked to track and respond to numbers which flashed on a computer screen, periodically reporting on the extent to which they experienced spontaneous, unrelated thoughts (daydreams).
According to Bar, this experiment goes far beyond previous research using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), showing how the frontal lobe is involved in mind-wandering behavior.