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Daydreaming Again? 5 Facts About the Wandering Mind

A woman daydreams while sitting at her computer
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A wandering mind

A man sits at a desk, daydreaming

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Daydreaming sometimes gets a bad reputation: Students who don't pay attention in class end up having trouble completing coursework, and workers who spend meetings thinking about winning the lottery are probably not the most productive. But research has shown that not all daydreaming is bad.

For example, daydreaming motivates people to work toward accomplishing their goals, said Dr. Matthew Lorber, acting director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. For example, if a high school student daydreams about getting into a good college, such daydreaming may motivate him or her to actually study more during high school in order to get into a good college, he said.

Here are a few other surprising facts about daydreaming.

We daydream on purpose

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Though people may think of daydreaming as something they do unintentionally, research has suggested that people sometimes zone out on purpose. Moreover, the circumstances in which such intentional mind-wandering occurs may be different from those in which people unintentionally daydream, according to findings published in March 2016 in the journal Psychological Science.

In the study, researchers asked people to complete an easy cognitive task, and found that the participants tended to let their minds wander on purpose and not pay much attention to what they were doing. But when the participants were asked to complete a task that was more challenging and required more focus, the people reported more unintentional mind-wandering, compared with intentional mind- wandering. [10 Things You Didn't Know About You]

The researchers said they think that people intentionally let their minds wander during easy tasks because they know they can get away with not paying attention to what they are doing — it won't hurt their performance. But when they complete a difficult task, they know they need to focus to complete it well, and therefore are less likely to zone out on purpose.

Blinking and thinking

A boy daydreams about space travel.

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Mind-wandering may go hand in hand with more frequent eye blinking, research suggests. In a study published in 2010 in the journal Psychological Science, researchers asked people to read a passage from a book and tracked their eye movements as they read. The researchers also tracked whether the people's minds wandered at random intervals throughout the experiment, or whether they remained focused. For this part of the study, the researchers asked the people from time to time whether they were paying attention or letting their minds wander away from the task.                                       

They found that people in the study tended to blink more during the moments when their minds wandered, compared with the moments in which they were more focused on the task.

Daydreaming can help with problem-solving

A lightbulb goes on during a daydream

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If you are stuck on a problem, letting your mind wander for a bit may help you get unstuck. Research published in 2009 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggested that the brain areas that allow people to solve complex problems become more active during daydreaming.

"Mind-wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness," lead study author Kalina Christoff, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, said in a statement. "But this study shows our brains are very active when we daydream – much more active than when we focus on routine tasks."

The findings suggest that daydreaming may serve to distract our attention from immediate tasks to solve other, more important problems, the researchers said. [Pay Attention! 5 Tips for Staying Focused]

Daydreaming amnesia

A man daydreams in a coffee shop

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For some people, letting their mind wander makes it tough to remember what they were doing right before their mind drifted. Research has suggested that such "daydreaming amnesia" is exacerbated if your mind drifts further from your current moment. For example, it's more common when your mind drifts to memories of an overseas trip rather than a staycation, or to a memory of an event that occurred five years ago as opposed to two days ago.

In the study, researchers asked a people to look at lists of words. They then asked some of the people to think about their own homes and where they had been that morning, whereas they asked other people to think about their parents' homes, which they had not visited in several weeks. The researchers then asked all the people in the study to recall as many words from the lists as possible.

The participants who were asked to think about their own homes were able to recall more words, on average, than those in the other group, according to the findings, published in 2010 in the journal Psychological Science.

You can be zapped into a daydream

brain, neurons

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Zapping a certain brain area may actually increase how often people daydream, according to a study published in 2015 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In the study, researchers found that when they stimulated people's frontal lobes with a mild electrical current, the people reported experiencing more daydreams than usual. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that regulates our self-control, planning and logical thinking.

"Our results go beyond what was achieved in earlier" studies, study co-author Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist at the Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said in a statement. "They demonstrate that the frontal lobes play a causal role in the production of mind-wandering behavior."

Originally published on Live Science.