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“Rabbit Hole in Our Mind”

October 28, 2011 2 comments

Ah, finally a scientific reason why I should daydream. We have all experienced that distant place in our minds that just seems so cozy when we are sitting in class realizing we cannot focus. After all it isn’t our fault that our minds just are not stimulated enough. The poet Joesef Brodsky once described boredom as a “Psychological Sahara”. This is the basis behind the The Importance of Mind Wandering article that inspired this blog today. Instead of playing the role of the concerned teacher, they chose Devil’s advocate and supported Brodsky’s advice to embrace daydreaming as a starting block for creativity.

In the past few years, neuroscientists have become increasingly interested in how the brain actually functions during the mind-wandering phase that is experience 46.9% of the time, according to two Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth. In 2009, a team led by Kalina Christoff of UBC and Jonathan Schooler of UCSB analyzed the mind during a daydream using an fMRI machine. (To my surprise) it has already been known for a decade that mind wandering is actually an intense metabolic process that requires a substantial amount of energy. (So yes, thinking to about all the better things you could be doing besides paying attention in class is more neurologically stimulating than actually paying attention in class) Their findings essentially were that mind wandering stimulates activation of both the default network regions as well as the executive network regions. This finding was also followed by the conclusion that the executive network is most pronounced when the person is unaware of his or her own daydreaming state. (For those who are not as meta-aware as neurologists, the default network is the system that is activated as we drift off into the clouds so effortlessly. But the executive network is the complex network of neurological thinking that would normally be occupied by the thousands of other processes both internally and externally. The fact that the brain prods the executive network for such a “mindless” act suggests that our connotation of daydreaming is actually false.

Australian scientists took a step further and wanted to develop or at least analyze a kind of “gradient of consciousness”. They conducted this research by observing “17 patients with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (UWS), 8 patients in a minimally conscious state (MCS), and 25 healthy controls”. The prominent difference between these patients was most apparent with the unresponsive patients who could not unengaged their default network from their dazed state and stimulate their executive network to “come back to reality”. It was also noted in this article that some patients who suffer from Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia have skewed senses of reality due to their inability to deactivate their default network.

The final research mentioned was that of a scientist named Schooler who stimulated daydreaming in his subjects by giving them an uneventful section of War and Peace to read. This was done to see if creativity really was a by-product of mind wandering. Schooler found two different types of daydreaming. The first type is described as the state in which the patients are unaware that they are daydreaming. The second type is described as the state in which the patients catch themselves daydreaming without the researcher telling prompting them, He concluded that creativity is actually only enhanced when the patients become aware of their own daydreaming.

Mind wandering is our guilty biological need for our brain to be stimulated at all times. Whether we are aware of our mind’s loss of contact with reality or not depends on us, but ultimately it is a feat that we as humans spend almost half the time thinking about. I say that it is ok to drift a little during class, but the most important thing is to bring yourself back. If you let your mind play hard, it must also work hard. (Although your mind is arguably working hard during a daydream…hmmmm)

Any questions, thoughts, or anecdotes on subject are free for interpretation. However I do want to know if this information changed anyone’s perception of their own guilty periods of daydreaming.