Daydreaming is mostly associated with idleness but what appears to be a wandering mind is actually an improving one. Researchers at the Bar-Ilan University found that in the process of beating boredom, the mind gains a cognitive benefit as an individual daydreams.
The first to show that external stimulus can change how a person thinks literally, researchers were able to produce a measurable increase in self-directed but spontaneous associations and thoughts, or daydreams in a study carried out at the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory of the university.
For the study, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) was administered to participants. Painless and non-invasive, tDCS utilizes low levels of electricity for stimulating certain parts of the brain. While subjects were given tDCS, they were also tasked with tracking and responding to numbers being shown on a screen. Participants were also to respond to a "thought probe" which asked the extent of the daydreams or spontaneous thoughts not related to the task they were given.
"We focused tDCS stimulation on the frontal lobes because this brain region has been previously implicated in mind wandering," explained Moshe Bar, director of the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center with which the laboratory belonged to.
The frontal lobes are also central to executive control in the brain, affecting organizational and planning skills in people.
To give them a point of reference, researchers utilized tDCS for stimulating the occipital cortex in a separate study. A control study was also carried out tDCS was not used.
Researchers discovered that while incidences of daydreaming didn't change when the occipital cortex was stimulated, mind-wandering increased when the frontal lobes were stimulated.
According to Bar, the study goes beyond what has been previously achieved in fMRI studies, with results demonstrating frontal lobes have a role in producing daydreams.
At the same time, the results also showed that ability to accomplish a task is not hampered by daydreaming. In fact, a wandering mind actually helps improve task-accomplishment. Bar believes this may have to do with thought-freeing activity and thought-controlling functions coming together, adding the involvement of different parts of the brain may affect behavioral outcomes like mood and creativity.
Bar is interested in exploring how external stimulation may play a role in other cognitive behaviors like multi-tasking. Therapeutic applications for daydreaming may be highly theoretical at the moment but he is confident there will come a time when mind-wandering will help neuroscientists in understanding behavior in people with abnormal brain activity better.