The study, lead by neuroscientist Professor Moshe Bar, aimed to explore whether a generic external stimuli could be used to trigger episodes of daydreaming.
To do this, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a non-invasive, low-electricity procedure, was used to target the frontal lobes of the brain, a region previously linked to mind wandering. At the same time, the participants were asked to track and respond to numbers flashing on a computer screen.
Sure enough, the extent to which the participants experienced random thoughts unrelated to the task at hand shot up dramatically in response to the treatment.
In itself this is an intriguing finding. However, during the experiment, Bar’s team uncovered something all the more unexpected – that straying into these subconscious thoughts actually enhanced the subjects’ cognitive ability, boosting their performance on the tests.
Bar believes that this phenomenon may result from the coming-together of ‘thought-freeing’ activity and ‘thought-controlling’ mechanisms within this frontal region of the brain.
“Over the last 15 or 20 years, scientists have shown that – unlike the localised neural activity associated with specific tasks – mind wandering involves the activation of a gigantic default network involving many parts of the brain,” Bar says.
“This cross-brain involvement may be involved in behavioural outcomes such as creativity and mood, and may also contribute to the ability to stay successfully on-task while the mind goes off on its merry mental way.”
Something to ponder the next time you’re caught staring out of a window…