Does daydreaming make you smarter?

Kids who spend classtime letting their minds wander usually get in trouble. But new research makes the case that spacing out can actually be a good thing

Go on, let your mind wander: Daydreaming is actually connected to a strong working memory and higher intelligence, according to a new study.
(Image credit: Ian Lishman/Juice Images/Corbis)

Hey, you, pay attention to this: A new study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that people who daydream might have a better working memory than their peers. Scientists have long held that such mind power is an accurate predictor of intelligence. Here, a brief guide to why a lack of focus might be good for the noggin:

First off, what is working memory?

It's the brain's ability to run multiple thought processes at the same time. Think of it as what you're using when you're on a "long commute home," says Alan Henry at Lifehacker. During the drive, you're thinking about what you should make for dinner, what movie you want to rent, whether you should check your email, and other small tasks. That's your working memory in action. Previous research has linked a strong working memory to higher intelligence, as measured by everything from IQ scores to reading comprehension.

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So how does daydreaming help?

In the Psychological Science study, researchers had groups of participants ages 18 to 65 perform simple exercises, such as pressing a button when a letter appeared onscreen or tapping in time with their own breathing. The experts checked periodically to ask the volunteers whether their minds were on the task or they were thinking of something else. At the end, participants were tested on their ability to remember a series of letters while doing math problems.

What did researchers learn?

Individuals who let their mind wander scored higher and displayed a better working memory overall. "What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren't very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing," says study co-author Dr. Jonathan Smallwood. "Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems."

And doing this makes you smarter?

A growing body of research seems to suggest that, yes, letting your thoughts drift may be helpful for all sorts of things, from boosting your creativity to tackling complex scientific questions. "So if your attention tends to wander a bit while you work on other things," says Henry, "don't feel too bad about it."

Sources: The Globe and Mail, Lifehacker (2), Red Orbit, Wall Street Journal

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