How Can Daydreaming Improve Goal-Oriented Results?

Daydreaming gives internal meaning to the pursuit of external goals.

Posted Nov 26, 2014

How much time do you tend to spend daydreaming or allowing your mind to wander? Are you someone who is hyper goal-oriented or feels a constant need for achievement? New research shows that letting your mind-wander may be the key to ultimately achieving your goals.

In order to problem solve your brain needs to connect the dots in new and useful ways. Solving any type of riddle or mental puzzle requires all regions of your brain to synchronize and work together. 

Traditionally, neuroscientists believed that strict executive function and goal-oriented thinking were the key to peak cognitive performance. This viewpoint is changing.

It now appears that if you "unclamp" your "task-positive network" throughout the day that you will be more likely to succeed at goal-oriented tasks.

Neuroscientists at Cornell University recently discovered that engaging brain areas linked to so-called “off-task” mental activities (such as mind-wandering, daydreaming or reminiscing)—which are associated with the default mode network—can actually boost performance on some challenging mental tasks.

Nathan Spreng and colleagues published their study, "Goal-Congruent Default Network Activity Facilitates Cognitive Control,” in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience

The authors hope that their findings will help to advance the understanding of how externally and internally focused neural networks interact to facilitate complex thought. 

In a press release Spreng said, “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 behaviors such as mind-wandering. Our study is the first to demonstrate the opposite—that engaging the default network can also improve performance.” 

What Is Your Default Mode Network? 

Default mode network (DMN) connectome.

Hans Berger, the inventor of the electroencephalogram (EEG), was the first person to suggest that the human brain is at work 24/7.  

In a series of papers published in 1929, Berger showed that the electrical oscillations detected by his invention remained active even when the subject was asleep. Almost a century later, the role of various electrical brainwaves and states of consciouness are still a mystery.

One new and interesing possible role of varying neural oscillations is how they are involved with information transfer mechanisms and the generation of rhythmic motor output, which is largely controlled by the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum.  

How Are Daydreaming and Nightdreaming Similar? 

I have a hunch that during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that the brain might somehow use the vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) in reverse to transfer the day's experiences into long-term memory. In The Athlete’s Way (St. Martin's Press) I have a section that focuses on rapid eye movement sleep as it relates to learning and memory.

On page 314 I discuss the connection between the cerebellum and cerebrum in dreaming and memory consolidation during REM, which is also known as "paradoxical sleep" because your brain appears to be "awake" to an outside observer looking at an EEG during REM.

study from 2013, “Rhythmic Alternating Patterns of Brain Activity Distinguish Rapid Eye Movement Sleep from Other States of Consciousness,” found that REM sleep constitutes a distinct “third state” of consciousness. 

Rapid eye movement sleep (in red zone) on an EEG.

In an abstract of the study, the researchers said:

Unlike either deep sleep or wakefulness, REM was characterized by a more widespread, temporally dynamic interaction between two major brain systems: unimodal sensorimotor areas and the higher-order association cortices (including the DMN), which normally regulate their activity.

During REM, these two systems become anticorrelated and fluctuate rhythmically, in reciprocally alternating multisecond epochs with a frequency ranging from 0.1 to 0.01 Hz. This unique spatiotemporal pattern suggests a model for REM sleep that may be consistent with its role in dream formation and memory consolidation.

Another 2013 study, “Altered Functional Connectivity of Cognitive-Related Cerebellar Subregions,” published in the journal Neural Plasticity found that the cerebellum contains several cognitive-related subregions that are involved in different functional networks including the DMN.

In particular the researchers found that the cerebellar crus II is correlated with the frontoparietal network (FPN), whereas the cerebellar IX is associated with the default mode network (DMN). These two networks appear to be anticorrelated but cooperatively implicated in cognitive control.

The cerebellum is taking center stage these days. Neuroscientists around the world are making breakthroughs and gaining a better understanding of each subregion of the cerebellum and their specific functions. Exploring the subregions of the cerebellum could become the most exciting new frontier of neuroscience in the 21st century.

What Role Does the Default Mode Network Play in Problem Solving and Creativity?

"Daydreaming Gentleman" circa 1912.

For example, Albert Einstein said of E=MC2, “I thought of it while riding my bicycle.” Keith Richards says he wrote Satisfaction in his sleep and recordered it into a taperecorder he kept by his bed without any conscious awareness of doing so until the next morning.

From a neuroscientific standpoint, both of these creative breakthroughs took place in a DMN state and were later actualized by engaging the task-positive network. Flipping between these two networks is the key to optimizing the function, structure and connectivity of your brain and achieving your goals with flying colors.

Over the past decade, I've transitioned from being more of an athlete to more of a writer. It took me a few years to realize that if I tried to cram my head with too much crystalized knowledge and new information without letting it gestate in a default state that it was impossible for me to connect the dots in new and useful ways.

I am constantly reading scientific research and trying to absorb new knowledge. I do most of my thinking about the material when I'm working out or while I'm sleeping. Daydreaming and letting my mind wander when I'm doing aerobic exercise is when I do my best thinking and have creative revelations. This is true for just about everybody I know and probably for you, too.

Sometimes the "Eureka!" moment never comes... but usually if I'm patient and casually flip from my task-positive network to my default mode network throughout the day I will have an ‘aha’ moment at some point when the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fit together.

If you need another reason to exercise more, add this new research to your list. Aerobic exercise engages the default mode network and can help you connect the dots of seemingly unrelated ideas in new and useful ways. Breaking a sweat regularly will make you more creative and more likely to achieve your goals. This is a universal phenomena. 

Conclusion: Neuroscience Shows That Daydreamers Can Also Be Superachievers

I have a 7-year-old daughter. Like most parents I know, we are all concerned that our children are being forced to study too hard and daydream less from a very young age. 

One of the biggest problems I have with all of the emphasis being put on: Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind, and standardized test scores is that there's little time allotted for daydreaming and mind-wandering. 

What will the long-term ramifications of not daydreaming or regularly tapping the default mode network be on young developing minds? 

This research implies that forcing anyone to cram their heads full of facts and figures without having time to integrate them throughout every network by having downtime to exercise, play, and daydream doesn’t optimize how the human brain is designed. 

I believe that allowing kids to run free and daydream more would actually help their test scores and odds of succeeding in life. Along the same lines, if managers give employees time to exercise, daydream and let their minds wander it could lead to more original ideas and innovations across the board. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic check out my other Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

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