Does it pay to let your mind wander?

Published on August 28, 2012

Have you ever wondered how Einstein, before the age of quantum computers and super conducting super colliders was able to come up with his theories of Relativity? Simple, he used what he called "thought experiments." Take for example, the one he conducted at sixteen years of age, mentioned by a biographical author who wrote, "In his book Autobiographical Notes, Einstein recalls how he once daydreamed about chasing a beam of light as it traveled through space. He reasoned that if he were able to move next to it at the speed of light, he should be able to observe the light frozen in space as “an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating.” For Einstein, this thought experiment proved that for his imaginary observer “everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the Earth, was at rest.”1

As you might guess, it would take a certain amount of daydreaming to come up with such am imaginative vision as Einstein did. In fact, he allowed his mind to wonder from his lecture so often that his students called him the absent-minded professor. He constantly interrupted himself during presentations, often left his luggage after visiting family, and locked himself out of his house by losing his keys.

While some might say that Einstein simply had a vivid imagination, the author of the paper “Spontaneous repetitive thoughts can be adaptive: Postscript on “mind wandering” points out that researchers "may fall into the trap of believing that spontaneous thoughts are task unrelated in a deeper sense. Similar negative connotations are attached to common terms like cognitive failures, resting state, rumination, distraction, attentional failures, absent-mindedness, repetitiveness, mind lapses, going AWOL in the brain, cortical idling, and the like."2

The author takes the stance that conscious thoughts produce adaptive changes in the high-level cortical areas of the brain, and more interestingly throughout other areas of the brain that science has yet to appreciate. This implies that even daydreaming - a conscious activity - is useful to us in some way. This global workspace theory makes the assertion that "spontaneous conscious thoughts, even if they appear to arbitrary, irrelevant, unwanted, or intrusive, may still play an important adaptive role in life-relevant problem solving and learning."

day dreaming

The author is on the right track when he makes the point that even in our deepest slow-wave sleep called the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, spontaneous ideation is taking place. Think about it, next to being comatose, sleeping is the closest that we can come to death. We are not conscious of our environment; our involuntary muscles disabled and our sensory modalities are for the most part inactive. Our brain has virtually disconnected from its external environment.

Yet we now know that the brain is in anything but a "resting state" as it, for example, performs important consolidation of new memories and monitors the time-sensitive release of substances such as growth hormones (around five o'clock in the morning) and cortisol about three hours later to awaken us. Further, how many times have you heard of someone sleeping with a pad and pencil next to the bed so that they can write down their thoughts as soon as they awaken.

Besides helping us to be uniquely creative, letting our thoughts wonder might even make us feel better. Pointing out that "the content of repetitive thoughts is as important as the mere fact of repetition", the authors offer evidence that we might be able to increase our positive mood by having positive and frequent spontaneous thoughts.

I like the words of Neil Gaian who said, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.”

Drop us a line and tell us about your greatest "sleeper" idea. Until next time...KEEP THINKING!



1 accessed on August 4, 2012

2 Baars, Bernard J. “Spontaneous repetitive thoughts can be adaptive: Postscript on “mind wandering”.  Psychological Bulletin, Vol 136(2), Mar 2010, 208-210.


Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”