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Daydreaming Good or Bad?

Do you daydream? Does your mind wander when performing repetitive tasks? Were you told off at school for not paying attention in class? Everyone daydreams to some extent. Far from the reprehensible behaviour that it has been characterised as, it is actually very beneficial. This is something Tony Buzan has been saying for years and now neurological research corroborates his view.

The study was conducted by Professor Moshe Bar, et. al. of the Cognitive Neuroscience lab at Bar-Ilan University, Israel and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (reported in Mensa Magazine, June 2015).

Participants were subjected to trans-cranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a non-invasive and painless procedure passing a small electrical current across part of the brain. The specific brain region targeted, the frontal lobes, was chosen because, “…this brain region has been previously implicated in mind wandering, and also because this is a central locus of the executive control network that allows us to organise and plan for the future.”

The subjects of the experiment were given a numerical task to perform whist undergoing tDCS and periodically asked to report on a scale of 1-4 the extent to which they were experiencing spontaneous unrelated thoughts or daydreams. As expected, the electrical stimulation produced a measurable increase in the rate of daydreams compared to control groups with either no stimulation or stimulation of a different region, the occipital cortex, associated with vision.

It was assumed that mind-wandering would disrupt subjects’ performance of the appointed task. Surprisingly to the researchers, the study actually showed that daydreaming improved performance! Bar attributes this to the localisation of both “Thought controlling” mechanisms and “Thought freeing” activity in the same brain region.

Great thinkers have long employed daydreaming as a tool to come up with new insights. Though to gain respectability, a daydream is more often called a thought experiment.

Galileo proved that heavy and light objects fall as the same rate, disproving Aristotle’s theory of gravity, which assumed heavy objects fall faster. It is often stated that Galileo dropped two objects of different mass from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The objects were chosen such that both of which experienced very little air resistance and thus reached the ground at the same time. It is now accepted by most historians that this probably never happened and the story is a myth. He actually formulated his theory with an elegant thought experiment. His reasoning was as follows, “Imagine two objects, one light and one heavier than the other one, are connected to each other by a string. Drop this system of objects from the top of a tower. If we assume heavier objects do indeed fall faster than lighter ones (and conversely, lighter objects fall slower), the string will soon pull taut as the lighter object retards the fall of the heavier object. But the system considered as a whole is heavier than the heavy object alone, and therefore should fall faster. This contradiction leads one to conclude the assumption is false.”

Many scientists arrived at some of their greatest theories by daydreaming. These notably include Albert Einstein (Relativity, riding on a bean of light), Isaac Newton (Orbital motion, firing a cannon) and August Kekulé (The structure of Benzene, imagining a snake biting its tail to make a ring).

Next time you have a problem to solve, let yourself daydream and see where this leads you. Most importantly, don’t berate yourself when your concentration drifts.