Perhaps daydreaming while performing a challenging mental task, isn’t such a bad thing, according to a new study. The brain areas linked to “off-task” mental states like daydreaming can enhance performance on certain complicated mental tasks.
Researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, explained that it was previously thought that in order to solve a mental puzzle, the brain's executive control network for external, goal-focused thinking needed to activate, while the network for internal thinking (including daydreaming) had to be decreased to avoid background noise.
"The prevailing view is that activating brain regions referred to as the default network impairs performance on attention-demanding tasks because this network is associated with behaviours such as mind wandering," says lead author and neuroscientist Nathan Spreng.
"Our study is the first to demonstrate the opposite - that engaging the default network can also improve performance," he adds.
For their study, the researchers had 36 young adults view sets of famous and non-famous faces in a series and asked them to determine whether the current face matched the one presented two faces previously. Meanwhile, the researchers scanned their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
This task assessed whether using long-term memory involving famous people - which uses default network brain regions - supports short-term memory performance - which uses executive control regions.
Results showed that the study participants were faster and more accurate when they matched famous faces than when matching anonymous faces, suggesting their better short-term memory performance is linked to greater activity in the default network.
The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
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