Daydream believer: Why a wandering mind is a good thing

The Globe and Mail

(Jacob Wackerhausen/iStockphoto)

Good news for those who went through school with their head in the clouds: Daydreamers have a mental edge, Gizmodo reports.

According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science, a wandering mind is a sign of a strong working memory, which in turn is a sign of intelligence.

In the study, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, volunteers were asked to do one of two simple tasks – either pressing a button when they saw a letter appear on a screen or tapping in time with their breath.

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Periodically, the researchers asked participants whether their minds were on task or drifting off.

After the exercises, the researchers tested participants’ working memory capacity, scoring their ability to remember a series of letters while doing simple math questions.

The researchers found that participants with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering in undemanding mental exercises. But despite their lack of focus, the daydreamers didn’t do worse on the tasks.

“What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren't very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing,” co-author Jonathan Smallwood, a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, said in a release.

Previous research has linked working memory capacity with general measures of intelligence, such as reading comprehension and IQ score.

For daydreamers, where the mind strays points to underlying priorities, Dr. Smallwood said. “Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life – when they're on the bus, when they're cycling to work, when they're in the shower – are probably supported by working memory. Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems.”

But having a strong working memory shouldn’t be an excuse to squander a valuable resource, noted lead author Daniel Levinson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too.”

How you ever been chastised for daydreaming? If so, do you feel vindicated?