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Have you ever been challenged to be fantasizing instead of paying attention to something they are telling you or teaching you?
As it turns out that fantasizing or daydreaming is an important function of the brain and the same brain region associated with daydreaming is what allows us to perform tasks on “autopilot”.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge studied the parts of the brain known as the “default mode network” (DMN), which are activated when we fantasize about the past or the future.
And they discovered that it is the same network that is turned on when we automatically do a task that is familiar to us, for example driving on a known route.
Experts believe that this finding could help people suffering from some mental illness or addictions.
Previous research had determined that the DMN network is more active during rest states and that it may behave abnormally when conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder (ADHD) exist.
But scientists have yet to understand exactly what role this part of the brain plays.
How it was made
For the University of Cambridge study, 28 volunteers were asked to group a card of cards – for example a pair of cards – with one of four cards being shown to them.
They had to see whether the cards combined either by color, number or shape through trial and error. Meanwhile, his brain activity was monitored through a scanner.
While learning the rules – something known as the acquisition stage – the most active part of their brain was called the dorsal care network. It is associated with processing information that requires attention.
Once they learned the rules and applied them, the most active area became the DMN.
Volunteers were particularly good at accomplishing their task if their DMN activity was associated with activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is dedicated to memories.
Lead study author Deniz Vatansever said that DMN allows us to predict what will happen and reduce our need to think.
“It’s essentially like an autopilot that helps us make quick decisions when we know the rules of the environment we are in.”
“For example, when you drive to your office in the morning following a well-known route, the DMN is activated, which allows us to perform our task without having to invest large amounts of time and energy to make every decision,” he explained.
When the environment around us changes and no longer meets our expectations, our brain returns to the “manual mode”, which precedes the automatic system (i.e. the DMN activity).
Researchers hope their findings can help those who suffer from certain mental health problems such as addiction, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, who may have automatic thinking patterns that can lead to repetitive and annoying or harmful behaviors.