People who daydream might be far more intelligence, according to new research.
For a long time, getting lost in thought has been seen as a symptom of inefficient minds: people who can't concentrate or get distracted. But actually, it might show that your brain is simply too quick and efficient to avoid getting distracted, according to a major new study.
"People with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering," said Eric Schumacher, the psychology professor who helped lead the study.
In the research, scientists put 100 people inside an MRI machine and had them stare at one specific point for five minutes. That allowed them to build up a picture of how their mind works when it's at rest, by examining what parts of the brain were active.
"The correlated brain regions gave us insight about which areas of the brain work together during an awake, resting state," said Godwin, a Georgia Tech psychology Ph.D. candidate. "Interestingly, research has suggested that these same brain patterns measured during these states are related to different cognitive abilities."
They also had the participants fill in a questionnaire about how much they daydreamed in their daily life. The two could then be put together to work out quite how much a given person daydreamed, and how their mind worked.
They then compared that data with the results of tests that examined their intellectual and creative ability. They found that those who daydreamed more did better on those tests, and also that their mind appeared to be working more efficiently when it was in the MRI machine.
"People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad. You try to pay attention and you can't," said Schumacher. "Our data are consistent with the idea that this isn't always true. Some people have more efficient brains."
Professor Schumacher suggested that efficiency was actually what was leading people's mind to wander. Because their brains are more efficient, and perform tasks more quickly, they end up finishing and moving on to something else.
He said that one way of testing whether that is true is whether you tend to zone out of conversations. If you can do that and then slot back in, without feeling like you've missed out, then your brain might be working more efficiently.
"Our findings remind me of the absent-minded professor – someone who's brilliant, but off in his or her own world, sometimes oblivious to their own surroundings," said Schumacher. "Or school children who are too intellectually advanced for their classes. While it may take five minutes for their friends to learn something new, they figure it out in a minute, then check out and start daydreaming."
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