Zach Braff daydreaming Zach Braff daydreaming What happens when you daydream? Researchers say it could be helping you. (Photo: ABC)

Can daydreaming make you work more efficiently?

A new study discovers that a wandering mind may be a good thing.

Daydreaming gets a bad rap. Students who look out the window probably aren't taking in much medieval history, and some people daydream so much it disturbs their lives. But there may be a hidden upside to daydreaming: A new study found that daydreaming helps you complete simple tasks better.

Scientists from Bar-Ilan University in Israel applied electrical impulses to participants' brains as part of a non-invasive and painless procedure. During the experiment, the participants were asked to track numbers on a screen. The scientists wanted to see if they could induce daydreaming. In the process, they made a surprising discovery: the participants who daydreamed tracked numbers better than those who didn't.

"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. Professor Moshe Bar, a professor at both the Israeli university and at Harvard Medical School, ran the study. "The external stimulation actually enhanced the subjects' cognitive capacity," he said.

Gears turning in brain
Participants reported how many spontaneous thoughts they had the whole time, an action that surely didn't interfere with their spontaneous thinking. (Photo: Andrey_Kuzmin/Shutterstock)

The researchers think this may mean that our ability to focus is better than we ever imagined: by daydreaming, we go into a state of mind that increases all sorts of brain activities. Professor Bar thinks daydreaming lets people use both the parts of the brain that control thought and the parts of the brain that let thoughts freely and spontaneously come up.

"Over the last 15 or 20 years, scientists have shown that – unlike the localized neural activity associated with specific tasks – mind wandering involves the activation of a gigantic default network involving many parts of the brain," Bar explained. "This cross-brain involvement may be involved in behavioral outcomes such as creativity and mood, and may also contribute to the ability to stay successfully on-task while the mind goes off on its merry mental way."

Bar hopes to study how daydreaming affects people's ability to do other things: to multitask, for instance, or to focus. Perhaps, one day, the research will help people who suffer from abnormal brain activity.

So if you've got a simple task ahead of you, rather than focusing intensely to try and get it done, try letting your mind wander as you work.

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