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Lorena Valdez/Flickr.

Ever driven a long distance and been shocked to arrive at your destination with no memory of the trip itself? Turns out a wandering mind is nothing to worry about, and that daydreaming may, in fact, be linked to a brain mechanism that spares you from focusing on the daily grind.

A new study sheds further light on the little-known workings of the brain’s default mode network (DMN), a group of interconnected brain regions believed to be responsible for daydreaming and mind wandering. Its results provide compelling evidence that, in addition to helping spur “eureka” moments in well-known daydreamers from Einstein to Archimedes, the DMN plays an integral role in our ability to perform tasks on autopilot, allowing us to guess likely outcomes ahead of time, and thus devote fewer mental resources to mundane tasks.

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Artificial intelligence and automation are a source of palpable anxiety in our culture. Exciting technological advances are mingled with op-eds, statistics and predictions about negative implications for future employment: what will work and career opportunities look like in a future where computers learn, repair themselves and even come up with new solutions?

Futurist Thomas Frey gave a TED talk in which he predicted 2 billion jobs would disappear by 2030--but don’t be alarmed! He believes new jobs will be created in tandem with these losses, resulting in a net balance. Driverless car operating system engineers will replace taxi and limo drivers. Construction industry jobs will shift to 3D printer repair technicians. Rather than a lack of jobs, Frey suggests that “our challenge will be to upgrade our workforce to match the labor demand of the coming era.”

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This article is the second in a series about using technology to overcome the most primal challenges to humanity: disease, aging and death.

When I taught Introduction to Cognitive Science at the University of California, Los Angeles, I put the following thought experiment to my students: Imagine that we could study a single neuron in your brain so well that we know everything about it. We know how it reacts to signals from other neurons, we know how it responds to neurotransmitters and hormones. We know exactly how it affects the rest of your brain and body. And with that knowledge, we build a tiny artificial imitation of that one neuron, and we replace the original neuron with our imitation. Nothing is different about how your body or brain works: as far as everything else in your body is concerned, nothing has changed.

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