The Frontal Cortex

Daydreams

Sorry for the radio silence – I’ve been out and about doing some reporting. But I’ve got a story in the Sunday Boston Globe on the benefits of daydreaming and the default network:

Teresa Belton, a research associate at East Anglia University in England, first got interested in daydreaming while reading a collection of stories written by children in elementary school. Although Belton encouraged the students to write about whatever they wanted, she was startled by just how uninspired most of the stories were.

“The tales tended to be very tedious and unimaginative,” Belton says, “as if the children were stuck with this very restricted way of thinking. Even when they were encouraged to think creatively, they didn’t really know how.”

After monitoring the daily schedule of the children for several months, Belton came to the conclusion that their lack of imagination was, at least in part, caused by the absence of “empty time,” or periods without any activity or sensory stimulation. She noticed that as soon as these children got even a little bit bored, they simply turned on the television: the moving images kept their minds occupied. “It was a very automatic reaction,” she says. “Television was what they did when they didn’t know what else to do.”

The problem with this habit, Belton says, is that it kept the kids from daydreaming. Because the children were rarely bored – at least, when a television was nearby – they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. “The capacity to daydream enables a person to fill empty time with an enjoyable activity that can be carried on anywhere,” Belton says. “But that’s a skill that requires real practice. Too many kids never get the practice.”

Here is a recent Science paper on the default network. I hope everyone has a lovely Labor Day.

Comments

  1. #1 jb
    September 1, 2008

    Welcome back and cheerful Labor Day to you, Jonah! Thanks for another great article. Meditation, of course, is a formal way to cultivate this ability to recognize when you are daydreaming and make space for it. Thoughts and multiple interconnected thoughts = daydreams are ongoing. One simply trains to notice, label, and drop them in order to go back to the object of meditation. This way seem anti-thought but getting rid of thoughts is rarely possible plus you’d be throwing out right hemisphere ‘insights’ along with left hemisphere ‘how am I doing?’ type thoughts. Rather you are training to slow thoughts down, develope awareness of your state of mind whatever it is, make friends with your mind, and have insights.
    Slightly off topic, I’ve been wondering about the types of insight tests that are given by Mark Jung-Beeman as described in your New Yorker article. It seems to me that the ‘jumble’ word puzzles that appear in most daily papers are puzzles that can be solved by insight(rh) or by rote trial and error(lh).
    Off to putter in the garden on this beautiful day and maybe have some daydreams!

  2. #2 Luci
    September 2, 2008

    Jonah’s silence is always forgiven with the treat of another Globe article. We New Englanders get spoiled by so much choice writing from the locals.
    Using a ‘daydreaming’ tag is in itself so limiting for the variations of conscious states that anything slightly right (brain, of course) of someone’s idea of a rigidly focused state may include. Anything approaching wandering seems suspicious. But what happens when we read? Non-readers may consider that ‘empty time’, but how is it possible to read without generating a full range of internally generated images and sounds? TV is passive, and massively boring to some of us. So we have another social-cognitive mix of who has been permitted and encouraged to include free time to play, create, sing, goof off, all the dreamy states – and who has been denied that freedom. This is not limited to children. Memory trains and the default network do allow us space and time, but if no satisfaction is felt in the wandering, that too easily assumed mantle of guilt obliterates the benefit. Creative use of time is not wasting anything.

    We also have to consider involuntary ‘daydreaming’ that occurs with brain damage, tumors, epilepsy etc (it’s a neuro blog – you all know the score here).

    All who wander are not lost.

  3. #3 Swish
    September 5, 2008

    Re the *Boston Globe* article: your opening example, of how Arthur Fry came up with the idea of the Post-It Note as his mind wandered during a sermon in church, rather contradicts Belton’s conclusion, doesn’t it? The mind doesn’t seem to need “empty time” to wander, after all. (Heaven knows, mine was wandering during the Republican convention last night — in fact, that’s when I thought of this response to your article.) All the mind seems to require is the absence people or activities that absolutely demand its full attention — or else. So I’d venture to say that school, rather than television, is the most likely culprit!

  4. #4 elliott
    September 29, 2008

    Just catching up on your posts and I am really excited to see this one. The default network and how off-line processing relates to adaptive decision making seems a very important (and increasingly popular) area of research, as further supported by your later post on the benefits of unconscious decision making in complex situations. The trouble, as is usual with any new field, is in figuring out good ways to measure the phenomenon, and in then convincing people that this is real science. For the former, there are promising methods – in particular, fMRI data classification may bring further insights into the wandering mind, and animal studies are also moving in the direction of detecting off-line replay (like the Pennartz lab in Amsterdam). For the latter, I know many researchers in psych and neuroscience may react to great brain imaging studies like Prof. Mason’s with incredulity, but as work accumulates, people adapt. Perhaps a chapter in a future book of yours?!

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