The Frontal Cortex

Intelligence and the Idle Mind

I’ve written before about the importance of daydreaming and the so-called default, or resting state network, which seems to underlie some important features of human cognition. Instead of being shackled to our immediate surroundings and sensations, the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings and interesting counterfactuals. As a result, we’re able to envision things that don’t actually exist.

Of course, this new research conflicts with the bad reputation of mind wandering. Children in school are encouraged to stop daydreaming and “focus,” and wandering minds are often cited as a leading cause of traffic accidents. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think.

However, in the latest edition of Mind Matters, Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli and John Gabrieli of MIT outline some interesting new research on the link between resting state activity – the performance of the brain when it’s lying still in a brain scanner, doing nothing but daydreaming – and general intelligence. It turns out that cultivating an active idle mind, or teaching yourself how to daydream effectively, might actually encourage the sort of long-range neural connections that make us smart. At the very least, it’s time we stop discouraging kids from staring out the classroom window, because mind wandering isn’t a waste of time:

For the first time, functional measures of the resting brain are providing new insights into network properties of the brain that are associated with IQ scores. In essence, they suggest that in smart people, distant areas of the brain communicate with each other more robustly than in less smart people.

In a recent paper, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by Ming Song, examined how resting brain networks differ between people who have superior versus average IQ scores. They used graph theory to quantify the network properties of the brain, such as how strong the communication is among distant brain regions. A graph is a mathematical representation that is composed of nodes (or brain regions) and connections between them (functional connectivity or temporal correlations), and can be used to characterize neural networks. Like prior researchers, they found that the posterior cingulate cortex is the hub of the human brain – it is the most widely and intensively connected region of the human brain at rest. Moreover, the strength of connectivity among distant brain regions was greater in people with superior than average IQ scores. Another 2009 study came to a similar conclusion, and noted that the strongest relations between resting connectivity and IQ were observed in the frontal and parietal brain regions, which have been most associated with performance on IQ tests.

Thus, remarkably, the strength of long-distance connections in the resting brain can be related to performance on IQ tests. We are often impressed when people make creative connections between ideas – perhaps long-range connectivity in the brain empowers such mental range.

Comments

  1. #1 CRS
    January 7, 2010

    This morning I was daydreaming about how well Proust Was a Neuroscientist was written (on the last chapter now) and how one of your strengths, Jonah, is how you “make creative connections between ideas.” Do you daydream often?

    Also, this new research makes me wonder about the correlation between exercise and intelligence. I do an awful lot of daydreaming when I’m exercising…

    I am a new fan and I look forward to reading your blog and other books.

  2. #2 royniles
    January 7, 2010

    Ok class, everyone shut-up now and daydream!

  3. #3 Hal
    January 7, 2010

    Sounds like meditating to me.

  4. #4 miss zephyr haversack
    January 7, 2010

    Sounds like monkey mind to me, the mental state that meditation is supposed to quell. I have always been somewhat averse to meditation for just that reason, unless it’s loving-kindness meditation, the gamma-wave inducing practice. If you’re not thinking up something novel, at least you’re developing resilience, contentment, and compassion. I guess you could do worse, and probably we need both mental states.

  5. #5 k8
    January 7, 2010

    I have always been a big fan of staring out the window and daydreaming, but my fascination with what I can learn on the internet has taken up much of that time. I can’t tell if the payoff of having “known” more is worth the lack of imagination non-daydreaming has done for me.

  6. #6 Dan
    January 7, 2010

    Daydreaming allows the mind to relax and abandon habitual ways of thinking, restrictive ideas based on “reality”, etc. This allows the brain’s connections to “free-play” according to one’s wishes and desires, freed from the necessity of our adopted reality. This can only be good for the creative mind, and I’m sure all great creative minds do a lot of fantansizing and daydreaming.

  7. #7 Epistaxis
    January 8, 2010

    people with superior than average IQ scores

    “Superior than average”? What was the IQ of the person who wrote this? “Superior to average” if you really must, but what’s wrong with “higher than average”?

  8. #8 Gijs de Beer
    January 8, 2010

    Great post Jonah. As a designer I have been fascinated by daydreaming and being able to visualise scenario’s inside one’s head (the mind’s eye). So much so that my graduation project was about designing products for our working environments to stimulate daydreaming (it was called Dreamcatching).
    I feel that offices in particular have almost eliminated the change to think and to daydream. And thus don’t stimulate creative thinking in general.
    I hope this research can turn around some negative associations attached to daydreaming. Because most creative minds have had some of their best ideas in situations where their mind could wander off. For me that usually means taking a stroll:)

  9. #9 Maggie Wells
    January 8, 2010

    Yes but how do you differentiate between aydreaming and obsessing?

  10. #10 Nate
    January 8, 2010

    Not sure if you’ve run into this one, but check out:

    Schilbach et. al (2008) Minds at rest? Social cognition as the default mode of cognizing and its putative relationship to the “default system” of the brain. Consciousness and Cognition 17, 457-467.

  11. #11 Kris Jackson
    January 8, 2010

    The cartoonist and writer James Thurber said the hardest part of his job was convincing his wife that when he was standing and staring out the window he was actually hard at work.

  12. #12 vonWolfehaus
    January 8, 2010

    Everyone daydreams to some extent, so I get the feeling that everyone who reads this will interpret it to mean they’re smarter than average because they daydream =(

    Next I bet they’ll finally recognize that the amount of daydreaming matters too and that too much means you’re actually really dumb because instead of recognizing patterns in the real world, you spend your time in your head, getting you nowhere in life =p …and give snobbish artists a “scientific” excuse to look down on others because all they DO is daydream! Heh I’m only half-kidding.

  13. #13 Ray in Seattle
    January 8, 2010

    Say what? Brain scans reveal that higher IQ subjects exhibit stronger communication between distant regions of their brains – so kids shouldn’t be discouraged from daydreaming and staring out the window during class. Oookay.

  14. #14 Cathy
    January 9, 2010

    I too was wondering how the fMRI results about the brain at rest (daydreaming) compare to the fMRI results of a meditating brain.

  15. #15 Gramsci
    January 10, 2010

    This research talks about connectivity at rest and IQ, but where does it say anything about the results of cultivating connectivity through daydreaming? Couldn’t connectivity at rest be a result of better conscious focusing, in the same way that a heart at rest can beat more efficiently because of work done while exercising?

    I don’t endorse that idea, by the way, but as far as I can tell this article does not contradict it.

  16. #16 bipo
    January 10, 2010

    as a matter of fact, the term ‘resting state’ can’t be comined with the brain – what means that the brain is resting? as we are awake we are expierencing the world in a phenomenolocial ongoing, unified way. either induced by inner thoughts or evoked by extrinsic processes. im working in the EEG field and there has been a long debate (still ongoing) if alpha activity (which is the major frequency component at rest) has to do something with ‘cortical idling’ – upcoming evidence rejects that notion. at every moment we have to generate and use mental representation which are isomorphic with the external world – we have to extract meaning, we have to build proposions and associations. there’s no on/off-switch… and…

    there is no resting brain – brain death excluded.

  17. #17 teiana
    January 10, 2010

    they say all this stuff but they never look at these things the other way around. The smart children, when very young, get opportunities to daydream. They get them by finishing tasks quickly. The less smart children who take longer to follow instructions and carry out tasks, never get to daydream, because they’re continually playing catch up. The smartest ones are rarely stretched or kept busy, so daydreaming becomes a habit to them, while they wait on everyone else. Thus, as adults, we have a) people who started out smarter and developed a daydreaming habit and b) people who started out the least smart and therefore were the least likely to daydream, and therefore never developed the habit of doing it. Therefore, the most intelligent adults will be daydreamers – regardless of whether or not it ‘helps’ intelligence… they are the ones with the habit of doing it. Thus it will appear that daydreaming makes you more intelligent… but that’s not necessarily the case.

  18. #18 Margaret Roth
    January 11, 2010

    Mr Lehrer, Is there a difference in the male and female dicision making process when emotions kick into the factor?
    It seems that my husband and I will have a different emotional response to problem. Margaret Roth,Johnstown, PA.
    P.S. Loved your book HOW WE DECIDE !!!!!!

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    January 13, 2010

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  20. #20 twawki
    January 13, 2010

    Daydreaming is processing time. I need an hour or two each day and love it just to think. Helps me work better. Sometimes just doing something like a game of chess helps my subconscious process as well. All good stuff!

  21. #21 lulu
    January 24, 2010

    i used to visualize (daydream) but after the military I find it is very hard to picture anything. I do dream in full color, but cannot, when awake, see anything enough to describe it.

  22. #22 parisbreakfast
    January 25, 2010

    Very interesting…
    I spent all of grade school looking out the window and doodling in the margins.
    My blog is a visual daydream of Paris – it’s why I can’t meet up with ppl whilst there.
    I follow my camera where ever it leads me and others get in the way of my wanderings…

  23. #23 Linda St. Clairity
    February 9, 2010

    There is such a thing as a “resting mind”. It occurs during meditations. Years of mind training through meditation have slowed my monkeymind. At times my mind is quiet. Daydreaming differs from meditation, it’s a directed focus on subjects of interest and a free flow of ideas in regard to that focus. It seems to me that my daydreaming is usually about something I enjoy or want to enjoy. For example, I wound never daydream about Sara Palin becoming the President of the US. That brings suffering. I, on the otherhand, might daydream how I could prevent her from becoming President and this would have focus and enjoyment thus leading to a free flow of ideas. Ahhhh the mind – a supple playground.

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