We often get scolded for daydreaming—for becoming distracted by important and pointless thoughts alike. Still, we let our minds wander and ponder the meaning of life, the necessity that is pizza, the inner workings of our crazy friend’s brain. We lose control of our thoughts and sometimes feel confused upon coming to, but a lot of us are also able to get back down to business in no-time. There’s that classic movie scene where a kid tunes out of class and gazes out the window in deep thought; of course the teacher notices and calls him out in front of everybody, but the kid manages to come back down to earth and answer the question flawlessly. He may be a daydreamer but that doesn’t mean he’s unequipped or unintelligent; in fact, it might mean the opposite.
A new study “Functional connectivity within and between intrinsic brain networks correlates with trait mind wandering” from the Georgia Institute of Technology finds that daydreamers scored higher on tests of intelligence and creativity, which suggests that daydreaming isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it could instead signify valuable qualities like being smart or inventive. “People with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering,” explains Eric Schumacher, coauthor of the study and associate psychology professor at Georgia Tech.
To reach their findings, Schumacher and the rest of the research team analyzed the brain patterns of over 100 participants. These individuals were first tasked with focusing on a stationary point of fixation for five minutes whilst laying inside of an MRI machine—this allowed the researchers to observe which parts of the brain worked together at rest, as research has suggested that these “same brain patterns […] are related to different cognitive abilities,” says lead co-author of the study Christine Godwin. Then, the participants filled out tests that measured their intellectual and creative ability, as well as questionnaires about how often they daydreamed—the researchers took this data and compared it with the data from the MRI machine.
Researchers found that participants who reported more frequent mind-wandering scored higher on both intellectual and creative ability, and they had more efficient brain systems. “People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad. You try to pay attention and you can’t,” explains Schumacher. “Our data are consistent with the idea that this isn’t always true. Some people have more efficient brains. He goes on to explain that higher efficiency equals more capacity to think; therefore, the brain may naturally wander when someone’s working on easy tasks.
This explains why the aforementioned character can tune out his teacher’s voice and the entire lesson without really suffering any subsequent negative effects—that is, besides the teacher’s irritation. “Our findings remind me of the absent-minded professor—someone who’s brilliant, but off in his or her own world, sometimes oblivious to their own surroundings,” says Schumacher. “Or school children who are too intellectually advanced for their classes. While it may take five minutes for their friends to learn something new, they figure it out in a minute, then check out and start daydreaming.”
This study may suggest daydreaming to be a sign of intelligence and creativity, but the researchers note that daydreaming can also be harmful—so don’t use this as an excuse to stare out the window all day and neglect your work. More research is necessary to determine exactly when mind-wandering is helpful and when it’s not.
Source: Georgia Institute of Technology “Daydreaming is Good – It Means You Are Smart.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 24 October 2017.
Original Research: Abstract for “Functional connectivity within and between intrinsic brain networks correlates with trait mind wandering” by Godwin CA, Hunter MA, Bezdek MA, Lieberman G, Elkin-Frankston S, Romero VL, Witkiewitz K, Clark VP, and Schumacher EH in Neuropsychologia. Published online July 10 2017 doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.07.006