Teachers may now need to reconsider reprimanding daydreaming students in class, as a new Israeli study found that mind-wandering actually enhances brain performance and prepares the mind for complex tasks.
In a study published in February in American scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at Bar-Ilan University were able to show that, contrary to common belief, a wandering mind does not hamper the ability to accomplish a task, but actually improves it.
This surprising result may occur due to the convergence of both “thought-freeing” activity and “thought-controlling” mechanisms in a single region of the brain, according to Professor Moshe Bar, director of the University’s Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center.
“Over the last 15 or 20 years, scientists have shown that – unlike the localized neural activity associated with specific tasks – mind wandering involves the activation of a gigantic default network [of] many parts of the brain,” said Bar.
“This cross-brain involvement may be involved in behavioral outcomes such as creativity and mood, and may also contribute to the ability to stay successfully on-task while the mind goes off on its merry mental way.”
The Israeli researchers were also able to show that an external stimulus can substantially increase the rate at which daydreaming occurs, which in turn offers a positive effect on task performance.
According to Bar, the study shows people do not necessarily have a finite cognitive attention span. “Rather than reducing the subjects’ ability to complete the task, it caused task performance to become slightly improved,” said Bar. “The external stimulation actually enhanced the subjects’ cognitive capacity.”
During the experiment, participants were treated with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a painless procedure that uses low-level electricity to stimulate specific brain regions.
They were asked to track and respond to numbers flashing on a computer screen, and periodically report the extent to which they were experiencing spontaneous thoughts unrelated to the task given.
According to Bar, the results go far beyond what was previously achieved using studies based on fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), and demonstrate the role the frontal lobes play in the production of mind-wandering behavior.