Again, this study indicates that even when we perceive our minds to be wandering, the DMN is still engaging with other portions of the brain.”People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad. You try to pay attention and you can’t. Our data are consistent with the idea that this isn’t always true. Some people have more efficient brains,” concludes head researcher Dr. Eric Schumacher. “Our findings remind me of the absent-minded professor — someone who’s brilliant, but off in his or her own world, sometimes oblivious to their own surroundings.”
Some experts argue that it’s not the DMN alone that helps innovators achieve their “aha!” moments, but the ability to fluidly transition between being on autopilot and being attentive. Throughout her research, Dr. Kalina Christoff has noticed that creative people frequently toggle between relaxed brainstorming sessions and sharp analysis of each brainstorm’s results. “Unbridled freedom of thought and spontaneity could be hugely important for creativity, but it’s only half of what’s necessary,” Christoff notes. “The other half is to be incredibly critically and in a very constrained way evaluate the products.” Behavioral scientist Andrew Smart draws similar conclusions: “To be most creative, you need this oscillation between deep study with focused attention and daydreaming, which is why you may have your great ideas when you’re in the shower.”
Backing up these observations, psychologists John Kounios and Mark Beeman scanned participants’ brains while solving a mental puzzle, and found that the brain shifts rapidly inward just before a moment of insight, lighting up an area typically used to analyze and understand metaphors. Deeming the shift a “brain blink,” the psychologists noted that relaxation and a positive mood were critical to these “eureka” moments. Perhaps more important to a flash of inspiration is the individual’s awareness of it. Researcher Dr. Jonathan Schooler sums it up: “For creativity, you need your mind to wander, but you also need to be able to notice that you’re mind-wandering and catch the idea when you have it. If Archimedes had come up with a solution in the bathtub but didn’t notice he’d had the idea, what good would it have done him?”
So why should we care about the default mode network and its mysterious mechanisms? For one thing, a working DMN is vital to our mental well-being: researchers have linked abnormal DMN activity to a host of disorders, from Alzheimer’s and ADHD to schizophrenia, though further research is needed to fully explain these connections. For another, going on autopilot helps us relax in stressful or mundane situations. Says psychologist Dr. Jonathan Smallwood, “People assume mind wandering is a bad thing, but if we couldn’t do it during a boring task, life would be horrible. Imagine if you couldn’t escape mentally from a traffic jam.”
Finally, perhaps further findings on the DMN’s activities will encourage us to leave ourselves room to just “zone out,” to mix a healthy dose of daydreaming into our tightly-scheduled routines.