The science of zoning out

Scientists are beginning to study what our minds do when they’re doing seemingly nothing. It turns out parts of our brains are pretty busy when we’re zoning out and that what are brains do during unstructured “down time” may play an important role in keeping our brains healthy and happy:

[Scientists] have instead come to view mental leisure as important, purposeful work — work that relies on a powerful and far-flung network of brain cells firing in unison.

Neuroscientists call it the “default mode network.”

Individually, the brain regions that make up that network have long been recognized as active when people recall their pasts, project themselves into future scenarios, impute motives and feelings to other people, and weigh their personal values.

But when these structures hum in unison — and scientists have found that when we daydream, they do just that — they function as our brain’s “neutral” setting.

…Just as sleep appears to play an important role in learning, memory consolidation and maintaining the body’s metabolic function, some scientists wonder whether unstructured mental time — time to zone out and daydream — might also play a key role in our mental well-being. If so, that’s a cautionary tale for a society that prizes productivity and takes a dim view of mind-wandering.

Such social pressure, Schooler says, overlooks the lessons from studies on the resting brain — that zoning out and daydreaming, indulged in at appropriate times, might serve a larger purpose in keeping us healthy and happy.

“People have this fear of being inadequately engaged, and as a consequence they overlook how engaging their own minds can be,” Schooler says. “Each one of us can be pretty good company to ourselves if we allow our minds to go there.”

Posted by James on Monday, August 30, 2010