Do you ever catch yourself daydreaming while performing a challenging mental task and scold yourself for allowing your mind to wander? Perhaps this is not such a bad thing, suggests a study that found employing brain areas linked to "off-task" mental states - including daydreaming or reminiscing - enhances performance on certain complicated mental tasks.
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted by researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
They explain it was previously thought that in order to solve a mental puzzle, the brain's executive control network for external, goal-focused thinking needed to activate, while the network for internal thinking (including daydreaming) had to be decreased to avoid background noise.
"The prevailing view is that activating brain regions referred to as the default network impairs performance on attention-demanding tasks because this network is associated with behaviors such as mind wandering," says lead author and neuroscientist Nathan Spreng.
"Our study is the first to demonstrate the opposite - that engaging the default network can also improve performance," he adds.
Spreng explains that previous neuroimaging studies have shown that activation of the default network obstructs complex mental tasks, however, in most of these studies, the mental actions involved with the default network conflict with task goals.
He uses the example of thinking about last weekend's activities while taking notes in class; in this situation, the ability to keep up and take effective notes would be diminished.
Short-term memory performance linked to greater activity in default network
To further investigate how externally and internally focused neural networks interact to encourage complex thought, Spreng and colleagues took a new approach whereby tasks such as reminiscing can boost, rather than hinder, the goals of an experimental task.
For their study, the researchers had 36 young adults view sets of famous and non-famous faces in a series and asked them to determine whether the current face matched the one presented two faces previously. Meanwhile, the researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
This task assessed whether using long-term memory involving famous people - which uses default network brain regions - supports short-term memory performance - which uses executive control regions.
Results showed that the study participants were faster and more accurate when they matched famous faces than when matching anonymous faces, suggesting their better short-term memory performance is linked to greater activity in the default network.
Commenting on the findings, Spreng says:
"Outside the laboratory, pursuing goals involves processing information filled with personal meaning - knowledge about past experiences, motivations, future plans and social context. Our study suggests that the default network and executive control networks dynamically interact to facilitate an ongoing dialogue between the pursuit of external goals and internal meaning."
Though their study had a small sample size, Spreng and his team conclude that their research shows how activity in default brain regions support performance on goal-oriented tasks when this aligns with actions supported by the default network. In other words, when the conditions are right, mind wandering can help boost complex mental tasks.
Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested older adults' brain functions work better in the morning.