Let your mind wander. It’s neuroscience approved.
Daydreaming can be undeniably enjoyable — your mind wanders off to a world of dazzling wishful thinking, safe from the bores and trials of the real world. The act is often denounced as a waste of time, but neuroscience disagrees. In fact, daydreaming could be beneficial to the brain in a number of ways.
In theory, if you were asked to sit around and think about nothing, your brain would simply switch off. But years of research has proven the exact opposite. Our idle brains are surprisingly active.
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Gordon Shulman, a professor of neurology at Washington University in St. Louis, analyzed the results of nine brain scan studies in attempts to identify the network that comes alive when people pay attention. However, he instead stumbled upon the network that gets activated when we do nothing.
You’d think that the brain would become more active when study participants transitioned from resting states to performing a task. But Shulman realized that while the volunteers rested quietly in the scanner with instructions to do nothing, certain parts of their brains were actually far more active than when they were performing a task.
Neuroscientists had long believed that the the brain went inactive during resting states, but today, nearly 3,000 scientific papers have been published on the brain’s shockingly active “resting state,” according to BBC Future. And while research has shown that the idle brain is so active, the question remains why?
Perhaps, just like in our nightly dreams, our wandering wakeful minds play a critical role in helping us consolidate our memories — research has already shown daydreams serve such a purpose for rats.
But Moshe Bar from Harvard Medical School has an even more intriguing explanation for our daydreaming minds. Surely you’ve had daydreams of achieving future goals, or how you might react in a plane crash situation, or finally toughening up enough to stand up to that bully at work. The key: things happening in the future. Bar suggests that these daydreams essentially create future “memories” of things that haven’t happened yet, and these memories can help us react in situations when they actually do happen.
However, daydreams are particularly hard to research because, just like most things that go on in our minds, they’re highly subjective to each individual. Even if brain scans show heightened activity during the times our minds wander, it’s difficult to determine the true effect of these introspections and personal dreams — especially since the content of daydreams can only be self-reported.
Nonetheless, more recent research surfaced that links brain activity during resting states to life skills and experiences. Back in September, researchers at the University of Oxford used 460 “resting state” brain scans from the Human Connectome Project. They found that the strength of the neural connections between different brain regions varied based on a few personal factors — memory strength, years of education, and physical endurance. The results hint that different parts of our idle brains stay active just in case we suddenly need them to do something.
Daydreaming can be wildly enjoyable, or on the contrary, inconvenient and pestering. Giving our minds a little break during the workday to imagine ourselves winning the lottery and moving to Fiji isn’t all that bad, but when our mind insists on wandering off when we’re trying to fall asleep, it’s a different story. However, scientists have only begun to scratch the surface of the surprising cognitive benefits of daydreaming, so for the time being, embrace your mind’s weird ways and let it wander.