The Importance Of Being Idle

LA la-he-0830-brain.jpgDoes daydreaming have a purpose? Neuroscientists have recently become enraptured with the workings of the brain at idle moments. Referred to as “default mode network,” letting the mind wander is in fact a busy, critical state that is the key to maintaining one’s sense of self and personality. The Los Angeles Times reports:

In the span of a few short years, [scientists] have 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.

The idea that there may be a physical structure in the brain in which we unconsciously define who we are “would warm Freud’s heart,” says Dr. Marcus E. Raichle, a neurologist who has pioneered work in this fledgling field.

Raichle suspects that 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.

3 Comments on "The Importance Of Being Idle"

  1. Morganhanam | Sep 3, 2010 at 7:51 pm |

    Some of the labels applied here (‘default mode’ (!) , ‘errant thought’ or some kind of ‘work’) to daydreaming point to an inability to view this kind of spontaneous imaginative activity as being valuable in and of itself. The well nigh exhausted protestant work ethic lurking here under the guise of science is instructive. As long as these kind of subjective events are characterised this way one wonders if scientists will ever find a way to respectfully theorize about neurological activity. Cultural value placed on the supposedly pragmatic ,active and monological states of consciousness indicates scientific bias, causing them to overlook the more ephemeral, supposedly useless awarenesses.

    • Haystack | Sep 4, 2010 at 4:49 pm |

      I think it reflects the question they’re asking. Dreaming up an entertaining story, for example, certainly has value, but probably isn’t why the brain originally evolved that mechanism. It’s easier to imagine that it had something to do with working through scenarios for hunting or interacting with the other members of one’s hunter-gatherer band. In other words, for something to be of value in natural selection, that value has to be, as you say, “pragmatic,” rather than emotionally fulfilling in an abstract sense. The researchers probably recognize the value of imagination as the wellspring of all art, literature, etc; the question they’re asking is why it evolved when we were on the savanna, and that demands that it be evaluated according to a different set of criteria.

  2. justagirl | Sep 3, 2010 at 8:11 pm |

    my boss told me “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” – then he gave me nothing to do. 🙁

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