The Frontal Cortex


An interesting new study on mind-wandering and the default network was recently published in PNAS. The scientists, led by Kalina Christoff of UBC and Jonathan Schooler of UCSB, used “experience sampling” in an fMRI machine to capture the moment of daydreaming: essentially, subjects were given an extremely tedious task and, when their mind started to wander (this was confirmed with subjective reports and measurements of task performance), had changes in their brain activity recorded in the scanner. It’s been known for nearly a decade that daydreaming is a metabolically intense mental process, but this latest study further clarifies the sequence of events:

Activation in medial prefrontal default network regions was observed both in association with subjective self-reports of mind wandering and an independent behavioral measure (performance errors on the concurrent task). In addition to default network activation, mind wandering was associated with executive network recruitment, a finding predicted by behavioral theories of off-task thought and its relation to executive resources. Finally, neural recruitment in both default and executive network regions was strongest when subjects were unaware of their own mind wandering, suggesting that mind wandering is most pronounced when it lacks meta-awareness. The observed parallel recruitment of executive and default network regions–two brain systems that so far have been assumed to work in opposition–suggests that mind wandering may evoke a unique mental state that may allow otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation.

Last year, I wrote about the surprising benefits of thinking with the default network, which seems to be an important element of creativity:

In recent years, however, scientists have begun to see the act of daydreaming very differently. They’ve demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind – so fundamental, in fact, that it’s often referred to as our “default” mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings – such as the message of a church sermon – the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we’re able to imagine things that don’t actually exist.

“If your mind didn’t wander, then you’d be largely shackled to whatever you are doing right now,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But instead you can engage in mental time travel and other kinds of simulation. During a daydream, your thoughts are really unbounded.”

The ability to think abstractly that flourishes during daydreams also has important social benefits. Mostly, what we daydream about is each other, as the mind retrieves memories, contemplates “what if” scenarios, and thinks about how it should behave in the future. In this sense, the content of daydreams often resembles a soap opera, with people reflecting on social interactions both real and make-believe. We can leave behind the world as it is and start imagining the world as it might be, if only we hadn’t lost our temper, or had superpowers, or were sipping a daiquiri on a Caribbean beach. It is this ability to tune out the present moment and contemplate the make-believe that separates the human mind from every other.

I think Virginia Woolf, in her novel To The Lighthouse, has a particularly fine description of this mental process as it unfolds inside the mind of a character named Lily:

Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things, her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes and names, sayings, memories and ideas, life a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space.

A daydream is that “fountain spurting,” as the brain mixes together ideas, memories and concepts that are normally filed away in discrete mental folders.


  1. #1 jb
    May 15, 2009

    If you sit down and just watch your mind without asking it to do anything, without using some sort of meditation technique, it will switch into default mode and start thinking. If you watch this happen with your awareness and ask which of your senses seems to be invovled with thinking, you will usually come up with not smelling, not tasting, not feeling, not seeing but ‘hearing’. There seems to a little voice in your head; there may also be images that arise so one is also ‘seeing’ some thoughts. Try consciously thinking a thought or picturing someone you know to verify this.
    If one is not aware of this default mode, one will get sucked into it most of the time and be thinking 24/7 and not be aware of it. Usually the train of thought is a running commentary on how we are doing, what’s going to happen, what’s already happened; it’s not very creative chatter. To get creative insights which also arise as thoughts that we ‘hear’, it is usually necessary to clear out the default mode chatter to allow creative insights to arise. They will arise if 1) you have asked a question and 2) your mind and body are relaxed, and 3) you are not absorb in the default mode chatter. So as a meditator I’d say there is a difference between default mode chatter and
    and insight (from the right hemisphere?) even though they both arise as thoughts.
    Fascinating topic, Jonah! Thanks.

  2. #2 ken adler
    May 15, 2009

    Hey Jonah, since Twitter doesn’t have a space for comments, perhaps you can elaborate on the evils of teachers unions by your friends with impeccable liberal credentials.

  3. #3 katie lady
    May 16, 2009

    I have a child with ADD. Keeping him on any task is monumental work. He constantly goes into ‘his world’. How does daydreaming in the prefrontal cortex relate??? Does it??? How does medication affect this????

  4. #4 Title17Geek
    May 16, 2009

    So what is the upshot for teachers? On the one hand, we try to vary activities enough to maintain the students’ attention, and students’ attentiveness is taken to be an index of good exposition/lecturing. But when a concept really sparks in a student’s mind, daydreaming may indicate that a student has actually been seized by the idea. (Alternatively, the student at the next desk may smell of something overpoweringly evocative–seaweed, tapioca, ozone.)

  5. #5 Ana
    May 16, 2009

    I wanted to tell you that I really liked your article in the New Yorker this week. Parents should know that there is scientific proof on why you shouldn’t give your kids everything their hearts desire!! By not doing that and teaching them to wait, you can potentially help them to have better futures… Genius!

  6. #6 jb
    May 16, 2009

    For Katie Lady: if you look up ‘default mode network’ on Wikipedia it will refer you to some studies that talk about how the default mode network is different in children and adults with ADD. What to do about it? See my comment posted under Marshmallows On Radio a few days ago and read about positive reinforcement in the classroom that can also be used at home to help someone with ADD lengthen/strengthen their attention span. I just looked at the HeartMath Institute website where I got my biofeedback device. People have used this device with ADD children and adults and the results of some studies are reported there.
    I checked out the HMI with several cardiologists before ordering the device and the science behind it appears to be sound.

  7. I always believed that night dream is most important in solving our problems that helps us in producing creative solution. Now I see that even those short ‘trips’ are helpful in sorting and ordering our thoughts. “Mostly, what we daydream about is each other” – I have just realised that it’s so true.
    It just occured my mind: can this (ability to ‘switch off’ or the subject of daydreams) be different for sociopaths comparing to average people?

  8. #8 Amy
    May 18, 2009

    This study adds to the mounting evidence from neuroscientists and psychologists that daydreaming is our most creative state of mind for idea generation and problem solving.
    I’m amazed that this thought process has been relatively ignored when it plays such a critical role in our lives.
    If you’re interested in reading more about daydreaming, my book on the topic has just been published: Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers.
    I interviewed many people, including prominent daydream researchers. I hope it gets people discussing the topic and contemplating their own daydreams.
    I’ve always been a major daydreamer and resented the fact that it was so maligned by the powers-that-be when really it’s a glorious human capacity.
    Hope you don’t mind the plug, but I think it’s relevant to the topic. You can read more about it at
    Amy Fries

  9. #9 Martha Farag
    May 18, 2009

    Can lack of day dreaming make you a closed minded person?

  10. #10 hans
    May 27, 2009

    It actually seems that too much daydreaming can lead to Alzheimer’s.

  11. #11 JPB120
    August 26, 2009

    I find myself in a daydream extremely often, either replaying past events or possible future events, or even things which are entirely illogical. I entirely agree that the most creative things are stumbled upon while the mind has detached itself from the present reality and has retreated into its own creations. Not only have I created things with inspiration purely from my internal mind, but I have found abstract solutions to problems just by allowing my mind to do what it wishes.
    Daydreams have also helped me react in certain situations because I have thought about them prior. “What if” situations are often the basis of my daydreams, and occasionally, they are realistic, possible things. By preparing myself internally for what may happen, it made it easier to react when the situation did occur.

  12. #12 Angeeeeela Stewart
    November 12, 2010

    Ive found theres a difference between daydreaming and reflection.Reflection orders my mind then I am able to think creatively.I find daydreams useful-more for rehearsing what I may say/do in any given situatin,or should have said/done.When I am able to reflect I see how my mind orders things ,giving priority to the things I need to consider/act on/confront in the near future.The rest can just be forgotten. Ive found a small measure of alcohol helps.

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    November 17, 2011

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