Published March 19, 2012
Catch yourself daydreaming while washing the dishes again? If this happens often you probably have a pretty capable working memory, new research suggests.
This mind wandering, it seems, actually gives your working memory a workout. Working memory is the mental work space that allows the brain to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously. The more working memory a person has, the more daydreaming they can do without forgetting the task at hand.
"Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life — when they're on the bus, when they're cycling to work, when they're in the shower — are probably supported by working memory," study researcher Jonathan Smallwood, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, said in a statement. "Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems."
Researchers studied groups of people from the University of Wisconsin-Madison community, ranging in age from 18 to 65. 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. [6 Fun Ways to Sharpen Your Memory]
The researchers 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 additionalworking memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing," Smallwood said.
When our minds run out of working memory, these off-topic thoughts can take the main stage without us consciously meaning them to; for instance, arriving at home with no recollection of the actual trip, or suddenly realizing that they've 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 researcher Daniel Levinson, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, a part of the Waisman Center for Brain Imaging and Behavior, said in a statement.
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 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.
The study was published March 14 in the journal Psychological Science.