Bored out of your skull is a reality. A new study of mind wandering shows that the mundane moments of life allow brains to shift into a default resting state that invites daydreaming.
Some psychologists had suggested that mind wandering could be the brain's baseline, a place of flitting thoughts from which a person must wrench away for challenging work.
The new study agrees and looks deeply into the neural mechanics behind this common and sometimes happy affliction.
The findings also offer a solution to those who need to snap to. Rather than muscle-fatiguing efforts to focus, just try switching to more engaging work, said neuroscientist Malia Mason, lead author of the new work.
How does the mind wander into the la-la-land state we all drop into when the brain spontaneously generates a stream of voices, images, thoughts and feelings?
To find out, Mason, then at Dartmouth College, and her colleagues imaged the brains of a small group of participants performing simple, practiced tasks as well as more challenging, novel activities. The tasks required subjects to recall and manipulate four 4-letter sequences and four finger-tapping patterns.
At random intervals the scientists interrupted participants and asked if they had had any "irrelevant thoughts."
They found that during practiced tasks, the participants showed increased activity in certain regions of the brain's cortex, or the outer layer of grey matter that covers the surface of the brain. When these daydream brain regions lit up, the participants also reported the highest levels of irrelevant thoughts.
Not all minds wander to the same extent. Individuals who showed more blood flow in the default brain regions also reported more stray thoughts.
Now the scientists want to know why these unfocused thoughts occur at all. One idea is that daydreaming allows a person to stay only as alert as they need be during mundane tasks. The flitting thoughts could also serve as a "spontaneous mental time travel," which helps to thread together a person's past, present and future experiences, suggest the researchers.
Of course, there's one more possibility. Perhaps, the scientists wrote in the journal Science, "the mind may wander simply because it can."
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.