art by Kyle Uricchio

Keep on (Day)Dreaming for a Smarter, Healthier Brain

by Jusmita Saifullan

Has your mind ever wandered off to a dream world while washing the dishes or doing some other mundane, repetitive task? If so, then you have experienced something known as daydreaming. Currently, there is no scientific term for the phenomenon, only the established criteria of a temporary mental detachment from reality. While those who tend to “space out” are often deemed as lazy and incompetent, emerging scientific evidence has suggested otherwise. To those frequent daydreamers out there – embrace it, because there is nothing wrong with having your head up in the clouds. In fact, your brain just might be better off because of it.

According to a study at the University of Wisconsin, there is higher activation in the brain regions involved with working memory during episodes of daydream. This type of memory is defined as the ability to recall and retain information amidst distractions. Participants of the study who daydreamed more frequently outperformed those whose minds wandered off less often on working memory tasks. However, working memory is a limited resource, and researchers have theorized that in cases where individuals are performing simple tasks, those who have more working memory space use it by daydreaming. Thus, daydreamers can afford to do so because they have enough working memory storage to do the task at hand and let their mind wander to something else.

The wandering mind seems to serve as a cognitive advantage over the brain in the neutral state, or even when it is focused on a specific task because it involves the activation of a complex default network associated with a highly engaged brain state. Key regions in this network include the posterior cingulate cortex, temporoparietal junction and medial prefrontal cortex, all of which have been established to play important roles in working memory and the planning of complex cognitive behavior.

Since daydreaming involves brain regions and circuits associated with imagination and creativity, frequent daydreams can store more working memories. According to Eugenio Rothe, a psychiatrist at the Florida International University, the mind is able to access and process information that seems disconnected when the brain is neutral or focused on a task. As a result, those who daydream often may be able to draw connections between pieces of information in new ways with more ease than those who don’t.

Perhaps the most surprising finding has been the correlation between frequent daydreaming and higher intelligence. While IQ tests have been the traditional method used to measure intelligence, some suggests that a more integrative approach is needed in addition to a new definition of intellect. As New York University psychology professor, Dr. Scott Kaufman stated, “intelligence should not be measured merely through the ability to do well on cognitive tests.” According to Kaufman, intelligence should be measured not only by traditional markers such as attention and working memory, but also by spontaneous forms of thinking, including intuition and the ability to draw connections from stored information, which can be accessed when daydreaming. Using this new definition, it is evident that those whose minds wander more often are intelligent in different ways, such as being more apt to improvise in novel situations and reflecting on life events. Ultimately, it seems that daydreamers are reaping some hefty personal rewards.

In today’s rapid and technologically advanced world where computers and iPhones are constantly bombarding the eyes with images, it can be difficult to find the motivation or time for a moment and foster an active imagination. Perhaps there is something we can learn from daydreamers, who step away from reality into a world of their own. Of course, there is still such a thing as too much daydreaming. For instance, drifting off into dreamland when you are behind the wheels on a highway is not a good idea, but it is not so bad to indulge yourself in a little vacation on cloud nine every once in a while.