Want to Solve a Difficult Problem? Let Your Mind Wander!

Brain Scans from the UBC Study

I love to jump on my bike and ride a very familiar 20-mile loop near my home. What I’ve noticed on these solitary rides is that it’s as if my mind breaks free of its normal barriers and I find creative solutions to nagging problems. So when I’ve gotten off my bike in the last several months, I’ve literally stumbled upon a new name for a business, a book idea, a terrific resolution to a disagreement, and other very cool answers to problems that were on my mind.

Then I found out why this happens. It’s not just me! You can tap this source of inspiration and creativity too.  How? Why?  According a press release from the University of British Columbia, a study published in 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that activity in numerous brain regions actually increases when our minds wander. The study identified that brain areas associated with complex problem solving, previously thought to go dormant when we daydream, are actually highly active during that time.

“Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness,” said lead author of the study, Prof. Kalina Christoff, UBC Dept. of Psychology. “But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks.”

 For the study, subjects performed a simple routine task (pushing a button when numbers appeared on a screen) while researchers tracked the subjects’ moment-to-moment attentiveness using brain scans, self-reported data and performance tracking.

 The findings suggest that daydreaming – which can occupy as much as one third of our waking lives – is an important cognitive state that allows us to unconsciously turn our attention away from immediate tasks so we can sort through important problems in our lives. Apparently, when we daydream, two brain networks activate in parallel. Until this study, scientists thought that when one network activated during daydreaming, the other one went dormant. In fact, the less aware the subjects were that they were daydreaming, the more active both brain networks became.

 The quantity and quality of brain activity found by this research suggests that people struggling to solve complicated problems might do better to let go of the struggle and instead, let their mind wander while doing a simple task.

 “When you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal – say reading a book or paying attention in class – but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships,” commented Christoff.

So there it is. Next time you’re struggling with an issue, feel free to wander about the cabin of your mind!

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Date: Thursday, 30. September 2010 16:10
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