A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals. Sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems.
There's an evolutionary advantage to the brain's system of mind wandering, says Eric Klinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and one of the pioneers of the field.
"While a person is occupied with one task, this system keeps the individual's larger agenda fresher in mind," Dr. Klinger writes in the "Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation". "It thus serves as a kind of reminder mechanism, thereby increasing the likelihood that the other goal pursuits will remain intact and not get lost in the shuffle of pursuing many goals."
When people do take up a task, the brain's executive network lights up to issue commands, and the default network is often suppressed.
But during some episodes of mind wandering, both networks are firing simultaneously, according to a study led by Kalina Christoff of the University of British Columbia. Why both networks are active is up for debate. One school theorizes that the executive network is working to control the stray thoughts and put the mind back on task.
Another school of psychologists, which includes the Santa Barbara researchers, theorizes that both networks are working on agendas beyond the immediate task. That theory could help explain why studies have found that people prone to mind wandering also score higher on tests of creativity, like the word-association puzzle mentioned earlier. Perhaps, by putting both of the brain networks to work simultaneously, these people are more likely to realize that the word that relates to eye, gown and basket is ball, as in eyeball, ball gown and basketball.
To encourage this creative process, Dr. Schooler says, it may help if you go jogging, take a walk, do some knitting or just sit around doodling, because relatively undemanding tasks seem to free your mind to wander productively. But you also want to be able to catch yourself at the Eureka moment.
Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind
By JOHN TIERNEY
Published: June 28, 2010
Researchers have been analyzing daydreaming, and they've found those stray thoughts to be remarkably common -- and often quite useful.