July 3, 2012
Don't Be Afraid To Reflect or Daydream -- It's Critical For Health and Well-Being
Many have speculated that our consciousness is activated during daydreaming. Past research has shown that the brain seems to contain a "default mode" in which certain regions become more active at rest. While moments for reflection may be hard to come by, a new study suggests that the long-lost art of introspection -- even daydreaming -- may be an increasingly valuable part of socioemotional functioning.
In the article, published in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and colleagues survey the existing scientific literature from neuroscience and psychological science, exploring what it means when our brains are 'at rest.'
In recent years, researchers have explored the idea of rest by looking at the so-called 'default mode' network of the brain, a network that is noticeably active when we are resting and focused inward. Findings from these studies suggest that individual differences in brain activity during rest are correlated with components of socioemotional functioning, such as self-awareness and moral judgment, as well as different aspects of learning and memory. Immordino-Yang and her colleagues believe that research on the brain at rest can yield important insights into the importance of reflection and quiet time for learning.
The default mode network generally increases its activity when the brain is at rest, then drops in activity once people are called to a certain task, whether it be work, watching television, or simply communicating with another person. In a similar way a person could be daydreaming or following a stream of consciousness, but those activities would be zapped away as soon as the person was called to action, even by a simple sound.
"We focus on the outside world in education and don't look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts," says Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. "What are we doing in schools to support kids turning inward?"
A 2009 University of British Columbia study confirmed that while daydreaming, the brain recruits complex regions of the brain, including the "executive network," which is associated with complex problem solving and which, as the "executive" moniker indicates, is the command center of the brain. Prior to this study, it was thought that the executive network was the exclusive problem-solving region and that mind wandering and daydreaming did not involve the "executive network." But this study debunked that theory.
Accumulated research suggests that the networks that underlie a focus inward versus outward likely are interdependent, and our ability to regulate and move between them probably improves with maturity and practice. While outward attention is essential for carrying out tasks and learning from classroom lessons, for example, the reflection and consolidation that may accompany mind wandering is equally important, fostering healthy development and learning in the longer term.
Interestingly, when people are given a comparably simple task but filled with sensory distractors (such as lots of other similarly shaped letters), the link between working memory and mind wandering disappeared.
"Giving your full attention to your perceptual experience actually equalized people, as though it cut off mind wandering at the pass," said psychologist Daniel Levinson.
Working memory capacity has previously been correlated with general measures of intelligence, such as reading comprehension and IQ score. The current study underscores how important it is in everyday situations and offers a window into the ubiquitous -- but not well-understood -- realm of internally driven thoughts.
"Balance is needed between outward and inward attention, since time spent mind wandering, reflecting and imagining may also improve the quality of outward attention that kids can sustain," says Immordino-Yang.
She and her colleagues argue that mindful introspection can become an effective part of the classroom curriculum, providing students with the skills they need to engage in constructive internal processing and productive reflection. Research indicates that when children are given the time and skills necessary for reflecting, they often become more motivated, less anxious, perform better on tests, and plan more effectively for the future.
And mindful reflection is not just important in an academic context -- it's also essential to our ability to make meaning of the world around us. Inward attention is an important contributor to the development of moral thinking and reasoning and is linked with overall socioemotional well-being.
Immordino-Yang and her colleagues worry that the high attention demands of fast-paced urban and digital environments may be systematically undermining opportunities for young people to look inward and reflect, and that this could have negative effects on their psychological development. This is especially true in an age when social media seems to be a constant presence in teens' day-to-day lives.
The vast majority of brain science has focused on people actively engaged in particular tasks or specific emotional states. But, in reality, most people spend a large part of their waking life in mundane pursuits that leave the mind free to wander, something neuroscientists call "stimulus-independent thought."
"Consistently imposing overly high-attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about 'what happened' or 'how to do this' to constructing knowledge about 'what this means for the world and for the way I live my life,' " Immordino-Yang writes.
According to the authors, perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from research on the brain at rest is the fact that all rest is not idleness. While some might be inclined to view rest as a wasted opportunity for productivity, the authors suggest that constructive internal reflection is critical for learning from past experiences and appreciating their value for future choices, allowing us to understand and manage ourselves in the social world.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.