Published on: March 17, 2012
by Zee News
Often find yourself daydreaming while engaged in some work? Then, you probably have a pretty capable working memory, scientists say.
This mind wandering actually gives one`s working memory a workout, increasing the individual`s ability to hold lots of information in the brain, researchers said.
Working memory is the mental work space that allows the brain to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously, and the more working memory a person has, the more daydreaming they can do without forgetting the task at hand, they said.
“Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life — when they are on the bus, when they are cycling to work, when they are in the shower — are probably supported by working memory,” study author Jonathan Smallwood, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, said.
“Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems,” Smallwood was quoted as saying by LiveScience.
For their study, published in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers studied groups of people from the University of Wisconsin-Madison community, aged 18-65 years.
The first group was asked to perform simple tasks, like pressing a button every time they took a breath or clicking in response to a letter popping up on a computer screen; these tasks were so easy that their minds were likely to wander, the researchers figured.
The researchers also checked in periodically, asking the participants if their minds were on task or wandering. When the task was over, they measured each participant`s working
memory capacity by having them remember letters while doing math equations.
Though all participants performed well on the task, the researchers noticed that the individuals who indicated their minds had wandered more than others also scored higher on the working memory test.
“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,” Smallwood said.
According to the researchers, when people`s brains run out of working memory, their off-topic thoughts can take the main stage without they consciously meaning them to; for instance, arriving at home with no recollection of the actual trip, or suddenly realising that they have turned several pages in a book without comprehending any of the words.
“It`s almost like your attention was so absorbed in the mind wandering that there wasn`t any left over to remember your goal to read,” study co-author Daniel Levinson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison`s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, said.
People with overall higher working memory were better able to stay focused when the task at hand required it. Those who had low working memory often had their thoughts drift away from the task, and did less well at it, the researchers said.
The findings add to past research suggesting these mind drifts can be positive moments. For instance, daydreaming has often been associated with creativity — researchers think that our most creative and inventive moments come when daydreaming.
It`s likely that the most intelligent among us also have high levels of working memory, Levinson noted.
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