They say that while we daydream, the brain is actually more effective. They believe that when we daydream, it is freed up to process tasks more effectively.
According to the new study, a wandering mind can impart a distinct cognitive advantage.
Scientists at Bar-Ilan University were able to show an external stimulus of low-level electricity can literally change the way we think, producing a measurable up-tick in the rate at which daydreams – or spontaneous, self-directed thoughts and associations – occur.
The team found this state offers a positive, simultaneous effect on task performance.
‘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 involving many parts of the brain,’ Prof. Moshe Bar, part of the University’s Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center said.
‘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.’
While it is commonly assumed that people have a finite cognitive capacity for paying attention, Bar said that the present study suggests that the truth may be more complicated.
‘Interestingly, while our study’s external stimulation increased the incidence of mind wandering, rather than reducing the subjects’ ability to complete the task, it caused task performance to become slightly improved.
‘The external stimulation actually enhanced the subjects’ cognitive capacity.’
As a point of comparison and in separate experiments, the researchers used transcranial direct current stimulation to stimulate the occipital cortex – the visual processing center in the back of the brain.
They also conducted control studies where no tDCS was used.
While the self-reported incidence of mind wandering was unchanged in the case of occipital and sham stimulation, it rose considerably when this stimulation was applied to the frontal lobes.
‘Our results go beyond what was achieved in earlier, fMRI-based studies,’ Bar states. ‘They demonstrate that the frontal lobes play a causal role in the production of mind wandering behavior.’