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Study links daydreaming to problem-solving

May 13, 2009
Courtesy University of British Columbia
and World Science staff

Our brains are much more ac­tive when we day­dream than pre­vi­ously thought, a study has found.

The re­search, pub­lished in the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, found that ac­ti­vity in many brain re­gions in­creases when our minds wan­der. It al­so found that brain ar­eas as­so­ci­at­ed with com­plex problem-solving – pre­vi­ously thought to go dor­mant when we day­dream – in­stead buzz with ac­ti­vity.

A sub­ject per­forms a rou­tine task in an fMRI brain scan­ner. (Im­age cour­tesy of Prof. Ka­li­na Chris­toff)


“Mind wan­dering is typ­ic­ally as­so­ci­at­ed with neg­a­tive things like la­zi­ness or inat­ten­tive­ness,” said Uni­ver­s­ity of Brit­ish Co­lum­bia psy­cholo­g­ist Kalina Chris­toff, lead au­thor of the re­search. But in real­ity it ap­pears “our brains are very ac­tive when we day­dream – much more ac­tive than when we fo­cus on rou­tine tasks.”

Study par­ti­ci­pants were placed in a brain scan­ner, where they per­formed the sim­ple rou­tine task of push­ing a but­ton when num­bers ap­pear on a screen. The re­search­ers tracked sub­jects’ at­ten­tive­ness moment-to-moment through brain scans, sub­jec­tive re­ports from sub­jects and by track­ing their per­for­mance on the task. 

The find­ings sug­gest that day­dreaming – which can oc­cu­py as much as one third of our wak­ing lives – is an im­por­tant cog­ni­tive state where we un­con­sciously turn our at­ten­tion from im­me­di­ate tasks to sort through im­por­tant prob­lems in our lives, Chris­toff said.

Un­til now, the brain’s “de­fault net­work” – which is linked to easy, rou­tine men­tal ac­ti­vity and in­cludes zones known as the me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex, the pos­te­ri­or cin­gu­late cor­tex and the tem­poropari­etal junc­tion – was the only part of the brain thought to be ac­tive when our minds wan­der, Chris­toff ex­plained.

But the study found that an “ex­ec­u­tive net­work” – tied to high-lev­el, com­plex problem-solving – al­so be­comes ac­tivated when we day­dream. These ar­eas in­clude re­gions known as the lat­er­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex and the dor­sal an­te­ri­or cin­gu­late cor­tex. The study uti­lized the brain scan­ning tech­nique func­tion­al Mag­net­ic Res­o­nance Im­ag­ing, which tracks blood flow in the brain.

“This is a sur­pris­ing find­ing, that these two brain net­works are ac­tivated in par­al­lel,” said Chris­toff. “Un­til now, sci­en­tists have thought they op­er­ated on an ei­ther-or ba­sis – when one was ac­tivated, the oth­er was thought to be dor­mant.” The less sub­jects 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, Chris­toff said.

“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,” said Chris­toff.


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Our brains are much more active when we daydream than previously thought, a study has found. The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that activity in many brain regions increases when our minds wander. It also finds that brain areas associated with complex problem-solving – previously thought to go dormant when we daydream – instead buzz with activity. “Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness,” said University of British Columbia psychologist Kalina Christoff, lead author of the research. But in reality it appears “our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks.” Study participants were placed in a brain scanner, where they performed the simple routine task of pushing a button when numbers appear on a screen. The researchers tracked subjects’ attentiveness moment-to-moment through brain scans, subjective reports from subjects and by tracking their performance on the task. The findings suggest that daydreaming – which can occupy as much as one third of our waking lives – is an important cognitive state where we unconsciously turn our attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems in our lives, Christoff said. Until now, the brain’s “default network” – which is linked to easy, routine mental activity and includes zones known as the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex and the temporoparietal junction – was the only part of the brain thought to be active when our minds wander, Christoff explained. But the study found that an “executive network” – tied to high-level, complex problem-solving – also becomes activated when we daydream. These areas include regions known as the lateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. The study utilized the brain scanning technique functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which tracks blood flow in the brain. “This is a surprising finding, that these two brain networks are activated in parallel,” said Christoff. “Until now, scientists have thought they operated on an either-or basis – when one was activated, the other was thought to be dormant.” The less subjects 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, Christoff said. “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,” said Christoff.