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Daydreaming, Default Networks, and Creativity

Head in the cloudsIs your mind ever really at rest? Does it ever switch completely off? Apparently not. Something is always going on. You may be focused or unfocused, thinking or dreaming, but something is always happening.

When we’re engaged in an attention-absorbing activity (AAA) – and especially a pleasurable AAA – the task-positive network kicks in. It helps us stay focused, pay attention, and accomplish specific tasks. It generally keeps us conscious of what we’re doing.

When we’re not engaged in an AAA, the default network kicks in, allowing our mind to wander. We can daydream, think about the future, “correct” mistakes we made in the past, and generally “zone out”. It’s what happens when your mind wanders away while reading or driving. It’s “negatively correlated” with parts of the brain that process visual stimuli, which may very well be related to inattentional blindness.

On average, some 30% of our waking time is devoted to daydreaming. The default network switches on and the task-positive network switches off. (They can’t both be on at the same time). Often, we are not aware that we are daydreaming, unless someone asks, a penny for your thoughts. Then we realize that we were somewhere else. Researchers on daydreaming essentially offer a penny for your thoughts at random intervals.

Why would we spend so much time daydreaming? It’s not completely clear. But people who have suffered long-term stress (like PTSD or child abuse) or who have some forms of autism seem to have difficulty activating their default network and daydreaming. As Josie Glausiusz writes in Scientific American, “The default network appears to be essential to generating our sense of self, suggesting that daydreaming plays a crucial role in who we are and how we integrate the outside word into our inner lives.”

Daydreaming may also be related to creativity. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara used the Unusual Uses Task (UUT) to measure creativity under different conditions. (The UUT present you with a common object – like a brick – and asks you to come up with as many unusual uses as possible). The researchers found that “higher levels of mind wandering” were associated with improved performance on the UUT. On the other hand, thinking specifically about the UUT did not improve performance.

To promote creativity through daydreaming, however, it appears that we need to be conscious of our daydreaming. That’s not as easy as it sounds. When I’m daydreaming, I am indeed zoned out and the bright ideas I get while in that zone may never pop into my consciousness. The trick seems to be to ask the penny for your thoughts question of yourself. As you return from your daydream, think about what you were thinking about and capture it consciously. You may find a good solution to a problem … or a good topic for your blog.

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