Don't interrupt me, I'm building my sense of self!
September 2, 2010 12:12 PM   Subscribe

An idle brain may be the self's workshop. 'Recent research suggests that mind-wandering may be important and that knowledge of how it works might help treat such conditions as Alzheimer's disease, autism, depression and schizophrenia.' Once upon a time, scientists didn't regard idle musings of the wandering mind as very important. 'But in the span of a few short years, they have instead come to view mental leisure as important, purposeful work — work that relies on a powerful and far-flung network of brain cells firing in unison. Neuroscientists call it the "default mode network."''Understanding that setting may do more than lend respectability to the universal practice of zoning out: It may one day help diagnose and treat psychiatric conditions as diverse as Alzheimer's disease, autism, depression and schizophrenia — all of which disrupt operations in the default mode network. Beyond that lies an even loftier promise. As neuroscientists study the idle brain, some believe they are exploring a central mystery in human psychology: where and how our concept of "self" is created, maintained, altered and renewed.'

'During these moments of errant thought, the brain is forming a set of mental rules about our world, particularly our social world, that help us navigate human interactions and quickly make sense of and react to information — about a stranger's intentions, a child's next move, a choice before us — without having to run a complex and conscious calculation of all our values, expectations and beliefs.'

'Neuroscientists suspect that the default mode network may speak volumes about our mental health, based on studies in the last three years that suggest it is working slightly differently in people with depression, autism and other disorders.'

'That fact underscores a point: Just as sleep appears to play an important role in learning, memory consolidation and maintaining the body's metabolic function, some scientists wonder whether unstructured mental time — time to zone out and daydream — might also play a key role in our mental well-being. If so, that's a cautionary tale for a society that prizes productivity and takes a dim view of mind-wandering.

Such social pressure, Schooler says, overlooks the lessons from studies on the resting brain — that zoning out and daydreaming, indulged in at appropriate times, might serve a larger purpose in keeping us healthy and happy.'
posted by VikingSword (20 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Unless you're obsessive compulsive or ADD and then you've got trouble.
posted by spicynuts at 12:16 PM on September 2, 2010

A wandering brain is not an idle brain. In fact the opposite is true. Maybe these guys have reversed cause and holy shit that's a neat spider.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:27 PM on September 2, 2010 [4 favorites]

This information seems related to me to the two studies reported in this post, about the importance of downtime to learning.
posted by bearwife at 12:29 PM on September 2, 2010

I pretty much have all of my best ideas when my brain is just drifting around when I lay down for a nap.
posted by Theta States at 12:32 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Daydreaming, nightswimming, cellardoor--what is it about compound nouns?

Snowman, birthday, pianokeys, lampshade--compound nouns all, unless I am wrong
posted by emhutchinson at 12:35 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

bearwife, I saw that post, and debated referencing it as "previously", but ultimately didn't do it, because that FPP seems much more narrow in scope compared to this. The work here is on a more "fundamental science" level where we are getting at the very underpinnings of our sense of self and how it is connected with mental disorders. Learning is just a very small part of it, though yes, it's somewhat related.
posted by VikingSword at 12:39 PM on September 2, 2010

posted by otolith at 12:40 PM on September 2, 2010

Just read this today, thought about posting at MeFi but unable to frame it -- looks like it's of use here: Keeping an active mind helps in the short term, but dementia sets in faster for active-minded people once you reach a certain point. I don't know what it means, but all I know is that long car rides are the sources of most of my brainstorming ideas. I remember this going back to my childhood (I was the furthest kid from school, so 90min bus rides through rural Minnesota were the norm), and it's part of the reason we don't have DVD players and MP3 players and so forth for the kids in the car. Make them think for a while or something.
posted by AzraelBrown at 1:02 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bechtel and Abrahamson had a paper at this year's cognitive science conference that noticed, with a startled tone, that the brain is an endogenously active mechanism. Others have known this for a long time, starting with William James and the stream of consciousness.
posted by stonepharisee at 1:09 PM on September 2, 2010

I often think that I could do ten times more daydreaming than I do now if I had a chauffer. But then I'd probably have to talk to the guy.
posted by Faze at 1:14 PM on September 2, 2010

I am glad to hear it called "default state" because that's where I spend most of my time.
posted by Eideteker at 1:24 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

bearwife, I saw that post, and debated referencing it as "previously", but ultimately didn't do it, because that FPP seems much more narrow in scope compared to this.

I agree. I was just pointing out a connection I see. I don't think this post, which is broader, needed to reference that one.
posted by bearwife at 1:24 PM on September 2, 2010

Them: What were you doing all morning?
Me: Default mode networking.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:26 PM on September 2, 2010 [8 favorites]

now, i understand what the Statue of the Thinker at the Rodin Museum
was doing. he was in Default Mode.
posted by tustinrick at 1:38 PM on September 2, 2010

This just in: gross oversimplifications—made in previous generations to optimize the pursuit and effect of low-hanging-fruit-plucking paradigms—proven, on closer inspection, to be gross oversimplifications.
posted by fleacircus at 2:53 PM on September 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

So it's good that I zone out a lot, right? I've always believed that zoning out is a good thing, and sometimes, when I'm in the bathtub, I zone out so much that I feel like a fish in an ocean of unknowing, or maybe a ship set adrift on an endless sea of possibility, sailing through the day into the setting sun, past an island where happy natives dive for pearls among fishy corals, with sparkling amethysts from a shipwreck that happened long ago, when the pace of life was slower and people took the time to sit and drink tea and smell the flowers, the beautiful flowers, while softly chatting of faraway places and endless possibilities, the conversation drifting past fishy corals into the setting sun.

My mind is healthy and strong.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:50 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of the fun little games I invented to enhance my near-constant daydreaming is to stop at a particular subject and try to remember backwards what my leaps of association were. Like, I'm thinking about the crawdads in the creek where I grew up, because I was thinking of my last trip to Lousiana, because I was thinking about Hurricane Katrina, because I was thinking about that movie that Spike Lee just did about that and if I should see it.

I don't know if it keeps my brain sharp or not, but it's fun.

Being a daydreamer teaches you many things, not least of which is how to listen during a meeting with half an ear you won't be surprised by sudden questions. You can still get a surprising amount of random thinking done with this method.
posted by emjaybee at 6:19 PM on September 2, 2010

Asimov had a short story (I forget the name but someone can remind us?) where a large computer was making errors randomly until the 'operators' gave it time to do what it wanted to do for a portion of time.
posted by gen at 8:50 PM on September 2, 2010

According to neuroscience, the subjective self is no more real than the soul, subjective consciousness or anything else that transcends the material.
posted by Yakuman at 3:44 AM on September 3, 2010

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