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Space out! Why daydreaming is so important

Brian Alexander writes:

Put the cell phone down, drop the Blackberry, cease the nonstop tweeting. All you attention-deficit types think that your multitasking is somehow proving your irreplaceable worth to the world.   

You’re making yourself stupid. Or at the very least, you’re affecting your memory.

That is the implication of a new study tracking the brain’s ability to form memories by New York University neuroscientists. In the study, test subjects who allowed their minds to “rest” after viewing pairs of images were better able to recall the pairs later.

Russel A. Daniels / AP

“Our data suggests that if you are not allowing yourself, not giving yourself a break, it is costly,” explained Lila Davachi, assistant professor of NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neuroscience. “It’s possible you are hindering your brain’s ability to consolidate memories and experiences.” The study was authored by Arielle Tambini under the direction of Davachi.

In the study, the brains of 16 men and women, aged 22 to 34, were scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) while they looked at object, or a face and a scenic view of, say, a beach or mountains. The participants were not told why they were looking at the pictures or that they would later be asked to recall them.

As the men and women viewed the pairs, a question appeared: “Likely or unlikely?” for the face associated with the object, and “Happy or unhappy?” for the face and scene.

After viewing the photos and while their brains were still being scanned, the subjects were asked to lie still, rest, and let their minds wander. The participants were told they could think about anything they wanted.

“What we really wanted to stress is that little break from intense cognitive activity,” Davachi said. “They were awake and having thoughts.”

Then the subjects were shown the picture pairs again and asked if each pair was the same as it was before, rearranged, or completely new.

During the rest period, the brains of the test subjects were establishing stronger connections between two areas of the brain critical for memory when compared to a baseline scan performed before the subjects viewed the picture pairs, Tambini and colleagues found. In other words, their daydreaming improved their recall.

Those subjects whose brain images during the rest period showed a greater magnitude of this connection-making activity were better able to recall face-object picture pairs.

The effect did not seem to hold for face-scene picture pairs. Davachi isn’t sure why, but suggests that the brain may have a bias toward recalling a face and an object one might use — a functional pairing — than simply a face and a pretty picture of nature. It’s also possible, she said, that the pictures of nature simply weren’t all that memorable since there are only so many pictures of mountains, beaches and meadows that look distinctive.

Adam Gazzaley, a University of California San Francisco neuroscientist who studies the mind and distraction, wasn’t surprised by the results.

“I have been thinking more and more about our external environment and our internal environment,” he said. “We feel like we live in an external environment because we interact with the world. But we also have a dynamic and rich internal environment.”

Results like Davachi’s and his own work are indicating, “there may be consequences” as we jam more and more stimulus into our heads, without taking a break to simply contemplate or daydream, Gazzaley said. “There are costs to multitasking and not pausing.”

Previous studies have shown that multitaskers are more distracted and stressed.

“It is up to us to slow down enough to make informed decisions,” Gazzaley continued. “I think there is a growing tendency to feel that if it exists,” he said of media in all its forms and omnipresence, “I might as well use it all at the same time. But just because it exists, and is cool, does not mean it has to all be used simultaneously.”