Why letting your mind wander is good for you

If you’re constantly “on the go” – texting whilst walking to school, looking at social media whilst on the bus, listening to music whilst doing your homework – then you could be negatively affecting your ability to learn. Why? Research shows that giving your brain some “down-time’ is important for learning.

“I think it’s very possible that some unconscious processes are going on during mind-wandering, and the insights these processes produce then bubble up to the surface,” says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has studied mind-wandering extensively.

What does the research say?

One study compared the results of students who received the same number of teaching hours (26 hours) either intensively over 3 days or spaced out over 4.5 days. The results showed that the students who received less intensive teaching (the 4.5-day group) scored better in the exam.

In another study, adults were shown face-object pairs (for example, a picture of Brad Pitt and a harp) four times, followed by an MRI brain scan during ‘down-time’. The MRI scan showed that the brain was still processing and memorising the face-object pairs during ‘down-time’, suggesting that it can help to strengthen memories and make learning more successful.

Going into “direct mode”

Thanks to MRI brain scans, many scientists have observed that parts of the brain communicate with each other when people are resting. The mysterious circuitry that occurs during daydreaming has been called the “default mode network” or DMN.

Experts suggest that learning, productivity, creativity and problem solving improve if we give our brains a five to 15-minute break. “Many people find it difficult or stressful to do absolutely nothing”, says Jonathan, which is why he suggests doing “non-demanding” tasks such as going for a walk, doing the dishes or folding laundry – tasks that involve your hands more than your brain.

So, next time someone tells you to “stop daydreaming”, you could say you’re “direct mode networking” and that it’s vital for your learning!

Read more about this:

Psychology Today: Mental downtime affects learning

Medium: Why your brain needs idle time

Scientific American: Why your brain needs more down time