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What a Day for a Daydream

Gaia Vince, Online Deputy Editor for NewScientist.com writes:

It’s the end of the working week, with the promise of the weekend looming ahead in all its glory… and I bet you, like me, have already fallen into the soothing lap of a daydream. Gazing out of the window, the mind wanders aimless, floating free as a cloud, flitting from one notion to another…

Sorry, where was I? Yes, the point of all this random daydreaming – for it turns out, there is a point – is apparently to allow the brain to remain in “standby” mode during a lull in tasks, a bit like a car idling between gears at the lights.

“This type of thought could be a sort of ‘default’ state of the mind, a psychological baseline,” says Malia Mason, who carried out brain scans of people either carrying out complex mental tasks or daydreaming.

The scans showed a distinct pattern in brain activity when people were daydreaming, which involved a complex network of disparate brain areas. Mason explains that a wandering mind still leaves the brain in an optimal state of arousal so it is primed for more purposeful tasks, yet it allows people to remain only as alert as they need to be during mundane tasks.

Science marches on. First we learned that red wine and dark chocolate have life-extending properties, now we discover that daydreaming is an optimum mental state. This may require some rethinking of my online bio, which begins with these words:

Phil Bowermaster has been a full-time amateur speculist since about age three. Often misunderstood during his childhood and adolescence, he fought a frequent perception that he was "daydreaming" or "goofing off" when in fact he was involved in serious contemplation of alternative scenarios to the world he saw around him. This misunderstanding persists to the present day.

Now that research is putting a mark of respectability on daydreaming, maybe I can dispense with the apologies. It turns out that I've not only been contemplating better worlds, I've been tuning my brain in the process. That's kind of a win-win, now, isn't it?

Vince goes on to complain about the inability to achieve perfect randomness of thought, and asks how others have been able to avoid inevitable thought traps such as worrying about whether one has filed one's taxes.

Well, Gaia, I would suggest that you stay on that thought trap until it leads you someplace new. Randomness should mean flowing into and out of patterns of thought. And if it doesn't lead you anywhere, maybe you ought to go ahead and file those tax forms. There will be plenty of time for random thought later.


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