Anyone who spends a large percentage of every Friday afternoon staring out the window will be heartened by research showing that a wandering mind may indicate intelligence. But can daydreaming actually make us smarter?
Jonah Lehrer points out on The Frontal Cortex that woolgathering has long been discouraged for kids and adults alike. He writes,
Children in school are encouraged to stop daydreaming and "focus," and wandering minds are often cited as a leading cause of traffic accidents. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don't really want to think.
But really, who wants to focus on the task at hand when there are so many puns to make out of the word "pudding?" Given a choice between work and play, is it any wonder the brain often chooses the latter? In fact, people whose brains make that choice may even be smarter ... sort of. Lehrer links to a Scientific American article in which Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli and John Gabrieli write that "the mind never rests" and that what the brain does when not encased in a specific task may shed light on intelligence and even mental illness. According to the article,
[F]unctional measures of the resting brain are providing new insights into network properties of the brain that are associated with IQ scores. In essence, they suggest that in smart people, distant areas of the brain communicate with each other more robustly than in less smart people.
Of course, what the study they reference actually found was that "the strength of connectivity among distant brain regions was greater in people with superior than average IQ scores," and IQ is a notoriously limited measure of intelligence. In fact, Whitfield-Gabrieli and Gabrieli sum up the limits of any measure of intelligence with this sentence: "Psychometricians have developed paper-and-pencil tests of general intelligence that tend to predict performance on a wide range of other tests and a number of life outcomes, like salary." Still, connections between different brain areas may help people with certain skills — though too many may actually be harmful. Whitfield-Gabrieli and Gabrieli write,
People with autism exhibit reduced connectivity in the brain network most associated with introspection. That lower connectivity may reflect their reduced ability to focus on their own thoughts and feelings, and reduced appreciation of the inner mental worlds of others. In contrast, people with schizophrenia have exaggerated connectivity in this network. This could reflect problems of self-reference and paranoia in schizophrenia, with an overactive network encouraging patients to interpret events in their environment as having special relevance to themselves.
What the writers don't really examine is whether connectivity between different brain regions is something that can be developed over time, whether daydreaming can actually make us more empathetic or even smarter (whatever that means). I certainly feel that my brain's primary "resting" activity — worrying — makes me better able to sympathize with others' problems, because it's all too easy for me to imagine those problems befalling me. I also think the hours I spent wandering around the backyard making up stories made me a better writer — my penchant for imagining families of quintuplets so that I could name all of them has even had a practical application. But the childhood brain is notoriously plastic, and it's hard to say whether daydreaming continues to confer benefits in adulthood. One thing is clear, though — the brain is at work all the time, which is a decent excuse the next time your boss catches you staring into space.
Intelligence And The Idle Mind [The Frontal Cortex]
Idle Minds And What They May Say About Intelligence [Scientific American]