By Ho Kwon Ping
MY MOST vivid memory of school is sitting at the back of the class looking out the window at the rice fields several floors below, hearing the occasional bark of a dog, the distant slam of a car door, and being lulled into a semi-hypnotic state by the slow whirring of the electric fan. My mind would wander, between reality and dream, concentration and distraction.
For such indulgences I was often rewarded by detention after school. In university I continued to be a back-of-the-class student, not irritating the lecturer by talking to friends, but generally daydreaming. Nothing consequential, just idly letting my mind roam. Nowadays I do this whenever I fly; I look at the clouds and observe their shapes.
Without the threat of detention from school teachers, I indulge in letting random thoughts form like soap bubbles, bumping into one another, bursting or simply floating away.
I had never really thought about daydreaming. But neuroscientists are discovering that daydreaming actually involves complex mental processes. Far from being empty, our minds are actually more active when we daydream than during other 'thinking' hours.
Our minds usually wander when we are engaged in routine tasks that, due to their familiarity, do not require focused attention. The 'default network' of the brain is usually engaged at this time, when we are not entirely focused on the external world or the task at hand. It deactivates when we switch to goal-oriented behaviour, and decreases in activity when other parts of the brain used to process external visual stimuli start up. It is essentially a network of brain regions used when we are in a self-referential, introspective mode of thinking, when we form extraneous thoughts unrelated to our immediate environment - in other words, when we daydream.
It was previously thought that only the default network was active during daydreams. But now, a new study by the University of British Columbia has found that during mind-wandering, the 'executive network' of the brain - the part associated with high-level, complex problem-solving - also lights up. Previously thought to work in mutual exclusivity, both the default and the executive networks are engaged in daydreaming.
This is what neuroscientist Kalina Christoff has to say: 'People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty. But mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem.'
Neuroscientists were able to measure far more brain activity in volunteers who tried to solve a problem through insight than in those who applied logic. 'We often assume that if we don't notice our thoughts they don't exist,' said Dr Christoff. 'When we don't notice them is when we may be thinking most creatively.'
Studies show that problem-solving by insight - when you suddenly feel the pieces click - requires both a higher degree and a different pattern of neural resources than methodical, logical thinking. Daydreaming seems to be a fundamental basis for insight. More than just a pleasant way to pass the time, it allows 'transit space' in between the more straightforward tasks of our day for new associations to form.
Given that creative insight is primarily the realisation of unusual connections between seemingly disparate concepts, daydreaming offers the mind space to explore these possibilities. Ironically, these insights often materialise without warning, through an unconscious shift in mental perspective, a sudden comprehension.
The lack of conscious awareness and accompanying mental freedom is key: Art Fry was bored by a church sermon and mulling over the repetitive problem of paper scraps, used as bookmarks, falling out of hymnal pages when he first conceived of Post-it notes. George de Mestral was walking his dog in the Swiss Alps when he noticed the way burrs stuck to his pet's coat and linked this to the idea of Velcro.
It is when my youngest son walks almost absent-mindedly yet obsessively round and around our house, tracing the same route, that he finds inspiration for his poems and stories.
But our culture today still discourages seemingly pointless, open-ended time. Class schedules are packed back-to-back with activities; office agendas are filled with meetings and deadlines. Goal-oriented thinking is considered primary. But what this new research suggests is that reaching loftier goals and even surpassing them requires not focusing on the steps along the way.
The recently formulated concept of neuroplasticity - the brain's ability to change both its structure and function - suggests that the brain can change by strengthening or expanding oft-used circuitry and minimising those less used. The implications are startling: What we think can change how we think - and vice versa.
Experiments that map the brainwave patterns of meditating monks find that the most accomplished practitioners with the most hours of meditation - 10,000 to 50,000 hours was the range - have more unusually powerful and fast-moving gamma waves than novice practitioners. The gamma waves of the more advanced monks were also better organised and coordinated. This intense brain pattern is associated with the ability to knit together disparate brain circuits, and therefore productive of the kind of perceptive insights that cannot be accessed through plodding logic.
Essentially, meditation is simply a more intensive and disciplined way of daydreaming. It frees the mind of conscious thoughts in order to allow the subconscious to surface and resolve issues in ways that the conscious, rational mind is not capable of.
What - and how - we know will no doubt continually evolve. We are learning that mental activities considered idle and wasteful in the past actually have profound functions. At the same time, we are discovering that these functions do not normally occur within our conscious grasp.
Yet, the possibilities to change and train the powers of our minds remain open. Whatever the case, daydreaming is not an activity anyone will, or can, give up. For now, we would do well to cherish that transit space, when we are in the suspended period between problem and solution, origin and destination.
The writer is chairman of the board of trustees of the Singapore Management University.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.