We've all been there: You're at a dull work meeting or presentation, and your mind keeps wandering—to what to eat for lunch, your weekend plans, or what's going on with the new season of Stranger Things.
Don’t feel so bad about all your daydreaming. Mind-wandering may be a sign of intelligence and creativity, according to a new study in the journal Neuropsychologia. And as long as your performance at work or wherever you are doesn't suffer when your mind drifts, daydreaming may not be such a bad thing after all, the study authors say.
Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology wanted to study what happens to people’s brain patterns when they’re told to lie still and do nothing—a prime opportunity for mind-wandering. So they asked 112 study participants to do just that: lie in an MRI machine while starting at a fixed point for five minutes.
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The research team used those readings to identify which parts of the brain worked together during this type of awake but resting state, and they also compared the readings to tests the participants took to measure their creative and intellectual abilities. In addition, the participants filled out a questionnaire about how much their mind wandered in daily life.
The researchers made several interesting connections. People who reported more frequent daydreaming during the day scored higher on creative and intellectual tests. Their MRIs also showed they had more efficient brain systems—meaning different regions of the brain were more in sync with each other—compared to people who reported less frequent mind-wandering.
The finding that mind-wandering is associated with intelligence was somewhat surprising, says lead author Christine Godwin, a psychology PhD candidate. That's because previous research has linked mind-wandering to poorer performance on memory and reading-comprehension tests, lower SAT scores, negative mood, and mental-health disorders.
“But when you think about the possibility that mind-wandering can potentially be helpful at times for cognitive through processes—or at least not directly harmful—it makes sense,” Godwin tells Health. Other research has also suggested that daydreaming (along with night dreaming) may help people become better problem-solvers, and that daydreaming about the future “can be particularly beneficial in preparing individuals to obtain their upcoming goals,” the authors wrote in their paper.
The study didn’t measure whether people with more efficient brain processes—and more mind-wandering tendencies—required less brainpower to complete certain tasks. But, Godwin says, “it’s an inference we can start to make, especially since mind-wandering was correlated with intelligence, as well.”
“Some other research indicates that people who have high cognitive abilities are able to mind wander during easy tasks simply because they can—because they have extra brain capacity so to speak, and may be more efficient in their cognitive processes,” she adds. (If you can zone out of conversation or tasks and tune back in for the important parts, then congrats: That’s a sign of efficiency, the authors say.)
“The popular perception is that mind-wandering is bad and it’s harmful and you want to try to avoid it,” says Godwin. “And that’s certainly the case oftentimes; if you’re not paying attention to a complex task, your performance is probably going to suffer.”
One example may be driving a car: While driving should require one’s full attention, it’s common for people to drift off in thought, especially if they follow the same route every day or find themselves on a long, monotonous stretch of road. Distracted drivers are a major source of traffic accidents and deaths, studies report, although some researchers say it’s still unclear how dangerous it is to daydream while driving.
There can be times, however, that mind-wandering does not impair performance— like when a person is completing a simple and low-risk task that’s done largely from memory, like folding laundry. “In those cases, it’s okay to embrace mind-wandering,” she says, “and the research suggests there may be some benefits to creativity and working memory and intelligence, as well.”
Godwin still recommends that people try to be mindful of tasks that require a lot of brainpower, and to be cognizant of whether their performance slips when their attention starts to drift elsewhere. “If you notice that’s happening, you may need to address that by taking a break or having something to eat—anything to help you get back on track, so you can stay focused now and let your mind wander later.”