The Importance Of Daydreaming And Its Effect On The Brain

The Importance Of Daydreaming And Its Effect On The Brain

A new study conducted by researchers at Harvard suggests that those moments our mind wanders off in a daydream may positively affect our brain’s ability to take on new information. By allowing the mind to wander while still conscious, daydreaming can boost your brain’s neuroplasticity, improving the ability to change and adapt to external factors such as injury, problem-solving, memory, and learning.

Also known as quiet wakefulness, daydreaming refers to a state of relaxation in which we’re less environmentally aware yet still completely conscious. It’s believed this can help the mind process complex thoughts, and recent studies appear to agree. In the Harvard study, researchers tracked mice’s brain activity by looking at two images with distinct checkerboard patterns. During periods of rest following the session, further brain analysis detected patterns of neurons being fired whilst the mice were daydreaming, and these appeared to correspond to the checkerboard images.

Researchers also found that when the same image was shown again, the pattern of neurons fired would be similar but not exactly the same, as though some memory could recall the pattern in part but not completely. This was reinforced as the same image was reshown. The pattern of neurons fired would become more similar each time, becoming more distinct until a unique pattern was formed and recalled for every image. This then allowed researchers to predict how the patterns would form.

The team labeled this process ‘representational drift,’ Mark Andermann, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, explained:

“The mouse may be incorporating this new picture into its model of the world based on all the previous pictures it’s seen, kind of like when you see a small fluffy animal on a leash in New York and then you think, ‘Was that a cat or a dog? Then you figure it out, and next time you look at the animal, it’s obvious what it is.”

Whilst still in the early stages of research and only conducted on mice, the findings appear to show a direct relationship between entering a state of quiet wakefulness and learning, which also aligns with other studies on humans.

Researchers noted the advantages of this type of learning, such as its simplicity and efficiency. The way it occurs is similar to how the most advanced AI models currently work, which could, in theory, mean that furthering our understanding of quiet wakefulness may not only lead to a medical advancement in humans but also a technological one in AI.

Otherwise, preliminary evidence showing that daydreams are involved in neuroplasticity is itself a rather big discovery, as we already know these functions are associated with many mental health disorders and rare diseases.

Daydreaming and creativity have similar cognitive processes and neural basis. However, few empirical studies have examined the relationship between daydreaming and creativity using cognitive neuroscience methods.

Human Brain Mapping

Daydreaming Research

Sun, J., He, L., Chen, Q., Yang, W., Wei, D., & Qiu, J. (2021). The bright side and dark side of daydreaming predict creativity together through brain functional connectivity. Human Brain Mapping, 43, 902 - 914.
Read The Research
The Importance Of Daydreaming And Its Effect On The Brain

Another Tool to Combat Mental Health Kit

Should more research improve our knowledge regarding these bodily functions and processes, it’s likely we’ll eventually see FDA approved treatments that leverage our understanding of neuroplasticity to improve a number of health issues, especially mental health conditions. Until then, it’s still possible for you to harness the power of quiet wakefulness, so why not try make daydreaming a productive thing as opposed to a none-productive, momentary loss of concentration.

One effective way you can employ daydreaming to better your mental health is in those situations where you’re quickly getting more anxious. If you find this occurring, try to relax and enter your daydream state. This may sound easier than it is, but there a few steps you can take to help relax and distract your mind from environment around you, these include:

  • Find a visual distraction not in your immediate environment, e.g. look out the window, across the road, or even just away from your desk toward anything visually interesting.
  • Go to your happy place. As simple as it might sound, thinking of something positive, pleasing, that has meaning to you can aid the process.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply. Repeat. Even focusing on the movement of breathing itself can also help.

Even in those situations where you’re unable to control your daydreaming, research suggests there is still some benefit to be gained. For example, the improvement in neuroplasticity is also known to help with memory, and problem solving skills.

In the simplest of terms allowing thoughts to roam around in the brain without direct focus provides time for revitalization. This provides the benefit of returning to the situation/problem with a fresh perspective, and we’ve all experienced how this appears to help our ability to deal with/overcome whatever it may be. Again the research agrees, a study conducted by Kam JWY, Irving ZC, Mills C, Patel S, Gopnik A, and Knight RT, that looked into ‘Distinct electrophysiological signatures of task-unrelated and dynamic thoughts,’ found that mind-wandering isn’t just good, but extremely important. It essentially showed that quiet wakefulness is more effective than forcing it, that returning to things more refreshed gives us new ideas and approaches.

In a rather novel manner, daydreaming is almost like a form of exercise for the brain, and just like exercising; it can be used to focus on one area of improvement, or multiple. Similarly, improving neuroplasticity in the brain, can also workout other parts of the mind that can in turn help to improve creativity, drive and determination, and social/emotional awareness.

Daydreaming conclusion

In the search for new cures to combat the endless list of conditions that affect our health, from common everyday ailments to those tough to treat rare diseases, the key to developing next generation of medications could come with any discovery. Even the smallest bits of new information researchers are able to uncover, from the conventional to the most unconventional sources, could path the way for breakthrough never-before-seen approaches to become viable remedy options.

Although it might not seem like the most productive, or most likely topic through which research is hoped to uncover valuable information, studying our notion to day dreaming may have indeed unearthed one of those breakthroughs that may lead to effective new treatments.

And on a little lighter note, discovering that daydreaming actually has positive mental health benefits also means we no longer need to feel guilty when the mind cannot concentrate, instead we can blame our brain for wanting to learn!

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