Dazed, but not confused

By Emily Fasold

Although daydreamers are generally considered spacey and forgetful, new research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found they tend to have better working memories.

The study, published online in March in the journal Psychological Science, showed that people whose minds wandered while performing simple tasks had superior working memories to those who kept focus.

Researchers define working memory as the mental workspace that allows people to juggle multiple thoughts and multitask. In other words, the stronger an individual’s working memory, the more they can daydream without forgetting the task at hand.

In two experiments, scientists asked 138 adults to complete easy tasks, such as pressing a button every time they took a breath and touching a computer screen whenever a letter popped up.

To measure distraction levels, researchers periodically asked participants what they were thinking about as they worked and determined their working memory capacities by asking them to recall letters they memorized before testing.

“We intentionally used tasks that will not use all of their attention so we could study how they utilized their spare time,” explained Jonathan Smallwood, a social neuroscience researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany.

Researchers found that individuals with stronger working memories admitted to daydreaming more while performing the simple tasks. However, when scientists gave them the same tasks with sensory distractors, such as an abundance of similarly shaped letters, they were able to get “out of the clouds.”

“For both tasks, there was a clear correlation,” said the study’s author, Daniel Levinson, a graduate student at UW–Madison, in a written statement. “People with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during these tasks.”

Smallwood said it is important to note that the findings do not suggest that people with a propensity for mind wandering are more intelligent or that daydreaming is advisable during situations that require full attention.

According to him, the study indicated that a person’s intelligence is not measured by how often they daydream but by their ability to “snap out of it” when needed.

For example, Smallwood said thinking about weekend plans or chores that need to be completed while driving down an empty highway is mentally productive. However, dazing off while driving through city traffic is both dangerous and unproductive.

“The results are significant because they show us that daydreaming shares features with how we manage thoughts that allow us to achieve,” Smallwood said.

The study has received positive feedback throughout the psychology community.

Thalia Goldstein, a research psychologist at Yale University, said she was impressed with the study’s results because they confirmed the long-suspected correlation between working memory and daydreaming.

“The study was surprising in that daydreaming is popularly thought to be associated with not being able to work at a high level,” Goldstein said. “But because this study differentiated between complicated and simple tasks, it showed the dual nature and benefit that daydreaming can have.”

Memory researcher Tracy Alloway agreed that the results made sense. However, she cautioned that since daydreaming is self-reported data, the results might not be as conclusive as they seem.

“With testing daydreaming, you’re relying on the individual to give you an accurate report of their thought process, and people aren’t always self-aware enough to do that,” Alloway said. “But Smallwood and his team have published a lot of work in the daydreaming arena, so I trust this research.”

In the future, Smallwood said he and his team plan to build off this research by studying how people use daydreams to make progress on personal goals.

“[Daydreaming] has become an important question because it allows us to examine the process that governs internal thought,” he said.