Could daydreaming be a mark of heightened intelligence?
Daydreaming is often associated with a reduced capacity to focus on a task at hand, and people who allow their minds to wander may be regarded as uninvolved, or as having "their head in the clouds."
One study found that people's minds tend to wander for almost half of their waking day, and the researchers behind it suggested that daydreaming could render us unhappy as our thoughts tend to drift toward negative scenarios.
Yet could people who daydream more than most actually have an advantage?
New research led by Dr. Eric Schumacher and doctoral student Christine Godwin, from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, seems to indicate that daydreamers have very active brains, and that they may be more intelligent and creative than the average person.
"People with efficient brains," explains Dr. Schumacher, "may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering."
The study's findings were recently published in the journal Neuropsychologia.
Cognitive ability and DMN connectivity
The default mode network (DMN) of the brain — that is, the neural connectivity that is visibly active even when the brain is otherwise at rest — has previously been linked to daydreaming.
In the new study, the researchers were interested in finding out whether the particular dynamics of the DMN in daydreamers, and this network's communication with other parts of the brain during mind wandering, correlated with heightened cognitive abilities.
Dr. Schumacher and his team worked with 112 participants who were subjected both to MRI scans and to tests targeting cognitive performance.
During the scan, the participants were asked to look at a fixed point for 5 minutes, during which time the researchers monitored their DMN activity. They also investigated how DMN activity correlated with other brain regions in a resting state.
"The correlated brain regions gave us insight about which areas of the brain work together during an awake, resting state," says Godwin.
This was important, she added, because "research has suggested that these same brain patterns measured during these states are related to different cognitive abilities."
The data from the MRI scans were paired with information derived from tasks aimed to measure the participants' intellectual abilities and creativity. They were asked to respond to a mind wandering questionnaire.
It was found that participants who said that they spent a lot of time daydreaming performed better in the cognitive tasks. Their MRI scans also showed heightened activity in regions connected with learning and memory.
The scans confirmed that DMN activity was tied to mind wandering. Daydreaming also correlated with connectivity between the DMN and the frontoparietal control network of the brain, which has been associated with cognitive control, or adaptability to different situations, and working memory.
Efficient brains and wandering attention
Dr. Schumacher says that these findings suggest that daydreaming may not deserve the stigma attached to it, after all.
"People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad. You try to pay attention and you can't. Our data are consistent with the idea that this isn't always true. Some people have more efficient brains."
Dr. Eric Schumacher
He adds that daydreamers with a heightened cognitive performance will most likely be able to tune themselves out of discussions or presentations without, in fact, losing the thread of the argument.
"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 Dr. Schumacher.
"Or," he adds, "school children who are too intellectually advanced for their classes. While it may take 5 minutes for their friends to learn something new, they figure it out in a minute, then check out and start daydreaming."
However, the researchers think that more studies are needed to investigate both the positive and potentially negative aspects of daydreaming.
"There are important individual differences to consider as well, such as a person's motivation or intent to stay focused on a particular task," Godwin concludes.