A wandering mind may not be such a bad thing.
A new study suggests the parts of the brain responsible for daydreaming are also responsible for completing tasks on "autopilot."
The "default mode network" or DMN is the network in the brain that activates when we're daydreaming, thinking about the past, or thinking about the future. We now know it also kicks in when we're performing actions that we've done before.
Problems in the DMN can contribute to illnesses like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's.
For the study, Cambridge University scientists had 28 people lie in a MRI machine while they played a card game. The volunteers were asked to match the playing card they were shown to one of four other cards depending on a rule. They weren't told the rule, and had to work out whether the cards were supposed to be matched based on colour, number, or suit on their own through trial and error.
Researchers said that when the participants were still figuring out the game's rules, the brain's "dorsal attention network," which processes information, was more active. Once they had the basics down, their brains switched to the DMN.
Participants completed the activity quicker when there was a stronger relationship between their DMN and parts of the brain associated with memory, like the hippocampus.
"Rather than waiting passively for things to happen to us, we are constantly trying to predict the environment around us," Deniz Vatansever, one of the study's researchers, said in a news release.
He said the DMN allows us to make fast decisions when we already know the rules in our environment.
"So for example, when you're driving to work in the morning along a familiar route, the default mode network will be active, enabling us to perform our task without having to invest lots of time and energy into every decision."
This is all good news for people who like to daydream. Other studies have highlighted the importance of daydreaming, and have linked it to both intelligence and creativity. Different types of daydreaming can also have different benefits like reducing boredom and enhancing social skills, as HuffPost has reported in the past.
With this new research, scientists are hoping they can use this new understanding of the DMN to help people with mental illnesses like depression or traumatic brain injuries that impact memory and impulse control.
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