Daydreaming brains are afire

A new study by University of British Columbia researchers, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that daydreaming is an extremely active, cognitively complex mental state:

"Mind wandering is typically associated with negative things like laziness or inattentiveness," says lead author, 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."...

Until now, the brain's "default network" - which is linked to easy, routine mental activity and includes the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), the posterior cingulate cortex and the temporoparietal junction - was the only part of the brain thought to be active when our minds wander.

However, the study finds that the brain's "executive network" - associated with high-level, complex problem-solving and including the lateral PFC and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex - also becomes activated when we daydream.

Brain's Problem-solving Function At Work When We Daydream (via /.)


  1. More proof that the state of mind least threatening to the Control Structure is the “alert” Beta range. Heaven forbid the people should have a moment to untie their knots and experience epiphanies!

  2. We’ve known for ages that the same pathways are activated when performing a task as when imagining performing a task. It’s not that surprising that daydreaming involves brain activation. Maybe another example of an fMRI study to confirm things we’ve known for years. It isn’t real until the little lights light up. (I work in a lab with a lot of PhD students using MRI and fMRI. Luckily they are doing quite useful things like blood flow and atrophy associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s).

  3. I want a hat with little flashing lights indicating cranial activity. My wife thinks I’m sitting here doing nothing. We could call it a Thinking Cap. Oh yeah…

  4. I wonder what a brain leaping to conclusions looks like in an fMRI scan? What does “very active” mean, exactly? We have trillions of cells in our bodies. As long as we live and breath, there is an awful lot of activity therein.

    [I just tried to register on this site. I use a password manager (1Password). Works fine on hundreds of other websites. I can’t login, so here comes an anonymous comment.]

  5. So I’ve spent a lifetime of complex problem-solving … and I thought I was just given to fucking off.

  6. #2. You’re right. Cognitive neuroscience was solved ages ago. We can all go home and stop the research.

    I’m not saying this study is great, but current methods have a specificity and sophisitication that “oh look visual areas activate when you’re imagining something visual” didn’t have in the 90s.
    For example look at Tom Michell’s recent work on using patterns of activity to decode the words you’re reading. And yes, like you say, reading smell words activates regions involved in olfaction. But based on that activity they can determine the precise smell word you were reading from a set of words. Couldn’t do that in the old days.

  7. I don’t think there is a single mental state, active or otherwise, that couldn’t be described as “cognitively complex”. Why, even the brain of a complete moron, when examined closely, is POSITIVELY ABLAZE WITH MENTAL ACTIVITY OF BLINDING SPEED! It’s fascinating research, to be sure.

  8. My thoughts exactly #1. Maybe schools will be more open and accepting of us daydreamers now.

  9. @ #6

    To imply that I think cognitive neuroscience has been “solved” is facetious.

    From my observations of many MR studies, a lot of people are just doing stuff because they can, which I believe is not good science. Also, MR seems to be extremely experimental to me, and using stats to make millions of comparisons will no doubt lead to lots of areas of activation. Also, if there is a decrease or an increase in activity always leads to the same results: increased activation means working harder, decreased means compensatory mechanisms – even if this goes against your initial hypothesis. There is so much flying around that it seems pretty pointless as present. I say give it 10 years before we get targeted studies that actually tell us useful things.

    The same thing is happening with Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. There was actually a study where the authors decided to see if TMS could “cure” depression. Now where’s the rationale in that? Maybe TMS can cure a broken toe, what not, let’s just randomly try stuff.

    As you can see it annoys me, and mainly because I spend so much time understanding my area of the literature to construct hypotheses based on sound theory and the MR guys can basically do whatever they want without much of a plan.


  10. Work like this is nearly useless. It has no explanatory power.

    First: the pretty lights are, fundamentally, blood flow carrying energy to “active” parts of the brain. If you don’t know what “active” means, that’s ok, neither do the scientists.

    Second: the whole damn brain is “active,” the shiny pictures just show which ones are more active than the whole background. Given that, does it surprise you that a whole lot of places are more active than the background when you’re thinking about a whole lot of things, and a more limited set of places are active when you’re thinking about 1 thing?

    Sure, we’re moving forward and blah blah blah, but real science is underfunded because trash like this gets hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

  11. Wow, a lot of heatedly-expressed ignorance here.

    First off, it’s always a bad idea to think that the watered-down version of a scientific finding you get in a press release, and then in an excerpt of a press release on a blog, actually represents the finding. It almost always gets distorted and oversimplified.

    Second, yes, the term “active” is relative in these situations. It does mean those regions that have greater signal (or to be a bit more precise, a greater signal/noise ratio) than others that do not.

    Third, re: #10’s comment, actually at this point we’ve got a pretty decent idea of what the fMRI BOLD signal relates to neurophysiologically. Start with the Logothetis 2003 paper and read the many many papers that build off of it.

    #9 Try reading the literature on TMS and depression. There actually is a physiological rationale for why it should work. For a recent review try Murphy et al., 2009, Current Opinion in Psychiatry.

    Yes, there’s some crap out there in this field as in any other, but to say that the “MR guys can do whatever they want” is ridiculous. If it were all crap, it wouldn’t be funded (and it is very expensive work).

    Fourth, for those interested in this specific finding – the reason this is interesting is that it’s a very CONSISTENT network of regions that tend to work together when a person is not doing an experimenter-directed task. This network is usually negatively correlated with another relatively consistent network of regions that activate when you direct your attention to doing a focused task. This finding shows the two don’t necessarily have to be in opposition. This is kind of important, as abnormal activity in the “daydream” network (it also goes by the term “default mode network”) is disrupted in one way in autism, in a different way in Alzheimer’s etc., and one possibility was that this dysfunction was caused in part by failures of the task-oriented network to inhibit it. Oh, and as for practical purposes, people with high genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease are more likely to show disrupted activity in this network even in their twenties, and it’s being looked at as a possible very early diagnostic (WAAAY before you get behavioral symptoms).

    And…now I’ll stop commenting on boing boing and get back to work trying to figure out the different attentional dysfunctions associated with different subtypes of schizophrenia, which brain regions are involved, and which neurotransmitters they are sensitive to, so that maybe someone can eventually design better treatments. But oops, I use MRI in some of this research, so obviously it’s no good. I will also tell my friend who is using people’s fMRI activations to help guide surgeons so they don’t cut out pieces of the brain responsible for tiny things like language function when going after a tumor that his work is also useless. Duh.

  12. This study adds to the mounting evidence from neuroscientists and psychologists that daydreaming is our most creative state of mind for idea generation and problem solving.
    I’m amazed that this thought process has been relatively ignored when it plays such a critical role in our lives.
    If you’re interested in reading more about daydreaming, my book on the topic has just been published: Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers.
    I interviewed many people, including prominent daydream researchers. I hope it gets people discussing the topic and contemplating their own daydreams.
    I’ve always been a major daydreamer and resented the fact that it was so maligned by the powers-that-be when really it’s a glorious human capacity.
    Hope you don’t mind the plug, but I think it’s relevant to the topic. You can read more about it at
    Amy Fries

  13. No wonder neuroscience hasn’t advanced beyond “this region lights up when someone does this”. They are using the same old low resolution scanning technology they was years ago.

    What a pointless field of study, we might aswell all daydream until someone invents usefull technology for studying the brain. What we have today, is a joke. We still know virtually nothing about the human brain.

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