Daydreaming may, in fact, be a sign of greater intelligence

A woman is lost in a daydream
A woman is lost in a daydream
Image: Mario Mancuso/Flikr
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Your high-school teacher may have been wrong to tell you off for not paying attention.

Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently published a study in the journal Neuropsychologia that suggested a strong correlation between a person’s tendency to daydream and the strength and efficiency of their brains.

Teams at Georgia Tech and the University of New Mexico put more than 100 people into an MRI machine and asked them to focus on a fixed point for five minutes to record their brain activity at rest. This gave the researchers a read on the strengths of those connections in the participants’ brains known to be involved in more complex thought processes, like reasoning and complex recall.

Outside of the MRI, subjects were asked to fill out a battery of tests meant to measure aspects of attention and intelligence. Tests like Mind Wandering Questionnaire had an obvious goal, while the Symmetry Span and Operation Span Tasks are meant to measure a person’s working memory. Finally, the Remote Associates Task, or RAT, is a test that asks the takers to associate words in creative ways and Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices, which asks subjects to complete a series of shapes, measure different aspects of creativity and intelligence.

The researchers found that those who reported a tendency to go on mental walkabouts also scored high on the RAT and the Raven. Furthermore, those same people had thicker clusters of physical connections between the networks of the brain associated with higher thought as seen through brain activity measured in the MRI. Together the data suggests a high correlation between those with higher quality and efficiency of thought—and a tendency, or more appropriately an ability, to let one’s mind wander a little more.

Christine Godwin, a PhD candidate and lead author on the paper, cautions that correlation is not causation and not all daydreaming is created equal. But “if you’re fairly smart or intelligent and you’re doing a fairly easy task,” she tells Quartz, “then you can perform at a high level, using less than the maximum capacity of your brain.” So, you can zone out on something and come back to it later without missing much.

“If it’s a more challenging task, a more in-depth conversation,” she said however, “you probably still need to pay attention.” And that goes for everyone, no matter how smart you are.