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Daydreaming? You're actually solving complex problems

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Scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have provided vital scientific justification for staring vacantly from behind your desk: What your boss believes is bone idleness is actually your brain indulging in "complex problem solving".

Professor Kalina Christoff, of the UBC Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, summarised: "Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness. But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream - much more active than when we focus on routine tasks."

To prove this Christoff and her colleagues stuck subjects in a fMRI scanner where they "performed the simple routine task of pushing a button when numbers appear on a screen", as ScienceDaily explains.

The researchers "tracked subjects' attentiveness moment-to-moment through brain scans, subjective reports from subjects and by tracking their performance on the task".

They found that daydreaming "is an important cognitive state where we may unconsciously turn our attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems in our lives".

Specifically, while it had previously been believed that daydreaming involved just the brain's "default network" - tasked with "easy, routine mental activity" carried out by the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), the posterior cingulate cortex and the temporoparietal junction - it's now evident that the "executive network" is also working hard.

This includes input from the lateral PFC and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which indulge in "high-level, complex problem-solving".

Christoff said: "This is a surprising finding, that these two brain networks are activated in parallel. Until now, scientists have thought they operated on an either-or basis - when one was activated, the other was thought to be dormant."

The upshot of the research is that, if you're struggling to solve a complex problem, you might be better off switching to something less taxing and letting your mind wander.

Christoff concluded: "When you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal - say reading a book or paying attention in class - but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships."

The team's findings - entitled Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering - are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ®

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