Is it good to have a wandering mind?

Reading this article will undoubtedly free certain readers of their guilt... There’s no denying it, all of us have caught ourselves daydreaming during a meeting at one time or another, right? Well, that may not necessarily be a bad thing! A study published in Neuropsychologia shows that having a wandering mind may actually be quite productive. What if the greatest daydreamers were also more efficient and creative than the rest of us?

While most of us spend part of our waking moments lost in thought, we accord little importance to this activity. According to J. Singer, a professor of psychology at Yale, we must distinguish two types of daydreaming that we experience at varying levels: “positive-constructive” (optimistic and imaginative thoughts) and “dysphoric” (scenarios of failure and conflict).

Just recently, a team of American researchers (Georgia Tech, the University of New Mexico, Cambridge, and the University of Pennsylvania) wanted to highlight the potentially harmless nature of daydreaming. Indeed, few studies have explored the neuronal mechanisms to explain the mind’s wanderings. The scientists focused on the DMN (a network of brain areas that is activated when an individual isn’t focused on the outside world), the DAN (dorsal attention network) and the FPCN (Frontoparietal Control Network).

Specifically, the researchers asked more than 100 volunteers placed in an MRI to focus on a fixed point for 5 minutes. Their brain activity was analyzed and the active areas of the brain (during an awake resting state) were identified. The subjects then performed tests to measure various abilities in terms of executive and cognitive function and creativity. They were also asked to fill out a questionnaire about their daydreaming habits.

The results of this study show that, at the neuronal level, the connectivity between the DMN and the FPCN is positively correlated with mind wandering, as is activity within the DMN. In addition, positive correlations were also established between mind wandering and cognitive and creative abilities. According to Eric Schumacher, one of the study’s co-authors: “People with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering.” It seems worthwhile to pursue this type of research to better understand when daydreaming can be useful and when it can be harmful, taking individual differences into consideration, such as a person’s motivation to stay focused on a particular task.

In the end, this study validates the myth of the absent-minded professor!
Source: Christine A. Godwin, Michael A. Hunter, Matthew A. Bezdek, Gregory Lieberman, Seth Elkin-Frankston, Victoria L. Romero, Katie Witkiewitz, Vincent P. Clark, Eric H. Schumacher, “Functional connectivity within and between intrinsic brain networks correlates with trait mind wandering”, in Neuropsychologia, July 2017


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