Daydreams May Boost Cognitive Function, New Research Suggests

By Sharon Moore on February 25, 2015

We often daydream when we are bored. Daydreaming is frequently criticised as a lack of discipline and an action that hinders future performance. But according to new research, this act involves more than just beating back boredom as the behaviour can actually impart a cognitive advantage.

Scientists at Bar-Ilan University have demonstrated that an external stimulus of low-level electricity can literally change the way we think about daydreaming.

They found the stimuli produces a measurable uptick in the rate at which daydreams, or spontaneous, self-directed thoughts and associations, occur.

Along the way, they made another surprising discovery: that while daydreams offer a welcome “mental escape” from boring tasks, they also have a positive, simultaneous effect on task performance.

Researchers said the study is the first to prove that a generic external stimulus unrelated to sensory perception triggers a specific type of cognitive activity.

In the study, participants were treated with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). tDCS is a non-invasive and painless procedure that uses low-level electricity to stimulate specific brain regions.

Participants were asked to track and respond to numerals flashed on a computer screen. They were also periodically asked to respond to an on-screen “thought probe” in which they reported on a scale of one to four the extent to which they were experiencing spontaneous thoughts unrelated to the numeric task they had been given.

“We focused tDCS stimulation on the frontal lobes because this brain region has been previously implicated in mind wandering, and also because is a central locus of the executive control network that allows us to organize and plan for the future,” Bar explains, adding that he suspected that there might be a connection between the two.

Whilst it is commonly assumed that people have a finite cognitive capacity for paying attention, Bar says that the present study suggests that the truth may be more complicated.

“Interestingly, while our study’s external stimulation increased the incidence of mind wandering, rather than reducing the subjects’ ability to complete the task, it caused task performance to become slightly improved. The external stimulation actually enhanced the subjects’ cognitive capacity.”

Future research will study the role in which external stimulation might affect other cognitive behaviours, such as the ability to focus or perform multiple tasks in parallel. And while any therapeutic application of this technique is speculative at best, Barr believes the information gained may help neuroscientists understand the behaviour of people suffering from low or abnormal neural activity.

Source of this article: Daydreams May Improve Cognition

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