Daydreaming makes the mind sharper. Accumulating evidence shows that mental drifting boosts brain power and promotes cognitive flexibility, creativity, imagination and general "smart thinking."
"There is a ubiquitous tendency for human brains to wander," Malia Mason, at Columbia University, found.
According to researcher Jonathan Schooler at the University of California, studies show that, on average, the mind is adrift roughly once every 10 minutes. Overall, most people spend up to half their time not thinking about a task at hand.
Mental drifting is the antithesis of mental focus. Researchers conclude that people with fertile minds frequently experience meandering thoughts and that their flashes of insight and creative achievement are due to this ability to escape from rigid cognitive focus. "It is some sort of unconscious process," Schooler said.
According to Jennifer Wiley at the University of Illinois, "the best way to solve a problem is not to focus."
"(When thoughts wander), attention is disengaged and decoupled from the constraints imposed by focusing on a task," Schooler noted.
That disengagement permits an infusion into the brain of information that otherwise might be ignored by a mind engaged in rigid focusing.
Shelly Carson, at Harvard University, believes high achievers are less likely to disregard seemingly irrelevant information. That allows them to be more open to novel ideas and strategies.
"Creative people are more attuned to stimuli from their environment, whereas focused brains shut out this information," she explained.
The process is called "latent inhibition," a sort of task-fixated tunnel vision.
"Creative people remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming from the environment," confirmed Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto.
Studies show that when minds drift, extraordinary activity is experienced in parts of the brain associated with "executive function." Most of the activity is in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Massive activity in a constellation of neural regions, called the "default network," is directly correlated with drifting thoughts, Mason concluded.
Freewheeling mindsets tend to indicate fertile minds, researchers say. Such individuals are more apt to be creative and outperform others with more focus, especially in tests of problem-solving.
"Brain imaging confirms mind-wandering is associated with activity in the default network of cortical regions," Mason confirmed. "(That is why) innovation may happen when people are not so focused."
Scientists report that seniors are often better at creative problem-solving compared to younger adults because seniors are more readily distracted by extraneous information, allowing them to take advantage of information that more focused individuals might pass over, Wiley suggested.
Schooler postulates that people who allow seemingly irrelevant information into their thought processes benefit from greater cognitive depth. That is why meandering minds often find novel solutions overlooked by focused minds.
"Originality can be bound by excessive focus," Carson concluded.
Schooler has suggested that people who want to be smarter should "let their minds wander."
The default network, lit by drifting thoughts, plays a key role in inspirational thinking.
Robert Alison is a zoologist and freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C.