By Shen Gao
You have probably experienced this scenario: you’re sitting in a lecture, the material is boring, the professor has a monotone voice, you’re tired, and so your mind starts wandering. What will you have for dinner? Maybe you will apply for that internship that you saw on LinkedIn. You look at your feet and think that it is time to shop for a pair of fall boots. Suddenly, it is the end of class and you realized you have been daydreaming for the past half hour.
People may think that daydreaming is something the human mind does unintentionally; however, research suggests otherwise—people zone out on purpose sometimes.
In one study, researchers asked participants to complete an easy cognitive task, and discovered that the subjects tended to let their minds wonder on purpose. However, when the same people were asked to complete tasks that were more challenging, their mind tend to stay focused, but reported more unintentional wandering of the mind.
In another study, researchers asked participants to read a passage from a book while they recorded eye movements as well as whether their minds wandered. The discovery from this study showed that people tend to blink more when their minds wandered compared to when they were more focused.
Some studies suggest that daydreaming may help with problem-solving. An article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showed that brain areas that solve complex problems were more active when a person’s mind wanders. The lead author commented that “this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks.”
Some people report that daydreaming may make it difficult to remember what they were doing right before their mind wandered. A study suggests that this “amnesia” is increased if your mind drifts back further in time from the present. The study asked a group of people to look at a list of words. Some of the participants were asked to think about their mornings at home, and the others were aske
d to think about their parents’ homes that they hadn’t visited recently. Those who thought about their mornings in their own home were able to recall more words than the other group.
According to another study published in PNAS, some researchers found that people will start experiencing more mind-wandering than usual if their frontal lobes are stimulated with a mild electrical current. The frontal lobes of the brain regulate decision-making, self-control, logic, and planning. This study shows that you can literally be zapped into a daydream.