When I want to solve a problem or come up with a creative idea, I usually sit down and think about it. This could be the wrong strategy, according to University of British Columbia psychology professor Kalina Christoff. The UBC prof is an expert in the unlikely subject of daydreaming, and has released findings that our brains are MORE activated than normal when we let them wander:

According to Christoff, there are two major networks in the brain: the executive network, involved in problem-solving, reasoning, and “goal-directed deliberate thinking” and the default network, which becomes activated when you’re not doing anything in particular. While only one of the two networks is generally activated at any given time, the study found that when subjects daydreamed or mind-wandered, both networks were activated at the same time.

“One of the things that I hope might come out of our study is that people realize that their brains are definitely not getting shut down when they mind-wander,” she said. “They’re very active….You have this unique brain state where instead of having one or the other shut down, both networks are available to be used. It’s a mental state that’s really not lazy, from the point of view of the brain.”

That may be why it seems as if many people’s best ideas come from inadvertent straying of the mind. [From The Ubyssey - Daydreams professor hopes study leads to new ways of thinking about thinking by Cynthia Khoo.]

Christoff thinks daydreaming works by bringing together ideas in ways our rational brain wouldn’t attempt. “After all that mind-wandering, eventually you start seeing connections that you wouldn’t have seen before, because you would never have logically allowed your mind to make those connections. Now it’s going to make them for you,” she notes.

Neuro-writer Jonah Leherer wrote about Christoff’s work in Daydreams, and also wrote about daydreaming last year:

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, like sticky yellow bookmarks.

“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.” [From the Boston Globe - Daydream Achiever by Jonah Lehrer.]

Al Fin extends the concept of productive daydreaming by describing a more specific methodology in Focus and Drift: A Secret Path to Brain Power?.

Here’s the neuromarketing takeaway from this Christoff’s work: if you are trying to solve a difficult problem, or come up with a new marketing strategy, don’t spend all of your time aggressively focusing on the problem. Let your mind wander – you might be surprised at what you come up with!

(Don’t forget to print out a copy of this post in case your boss asks why you are spending so much time staring into space. You may look like you are merely daydreaming, but science shows you are actually engaged in highly creative problem-solving activity!)

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