WE’VE ALL had moments during the day where our brains drift off into another state, maybe thinking about something we saw that day, our memories, what we are having for lunch or that viral video from 2014 that lives in our minds rent-free. As children, you might have even been punished for said indulgences, called out for daydreaming by a teacher. Well if that’s you, we are pleased to inform you, it’s your time to shine and get one back up on Mr Brown! Because, according to a new study out of Harvard Medical School, daydreaming might just actually play an important role in brain plasticity and learning.
Daydreaming is an extremely common and ubiquitous experience among humans and some animals. Yet, for some time, the act—which researchers refer to as a ‘quiet waking’ state—and its effect on the brain, has eluded neuroscientists. Now, they are one step closer to figuring it out via some tantalising research, early evidence is pointing to a finding that day drawing can shape the brain’s future around what it sees, how it remodels itself and responds to new experiences.
While it’s early days, the research has led us to wonder if this so-called ‘quiet wakefulness’ is the next big trend in biohacking, and could one day hold its place alongside the tried and true practices of meditation and mindfulness.
What is a ‘quiet waking’ state?
When Harvard Medical School’s neuroscientists refer to a ‘quiet waking’ state, they are essentially talking about daydreaming. Let’s call it, the space between processing information. It’s the state we are in when we are resting, while the brain is processing what we have experienced or what we have seen recently.
“We wanted to know how this daydreaming process occurred on a neurobiological level, and whether these moments of quiet reflection could be important for learning and memory,” lead author Nghia Nguyen, a PhD student in neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS said of the research.
To understand what was happening, Harvard’s researchers decided to track the brain activity patterns of mice who were shown two different images of black, white and grey checkerboards. Between looking at the images, the mice were shown a grey screen and it was in these periods of nothingness—aka the ‘quiet waking’ period—they found the mice’s thoughts would drift back to the images and their neurons would start firing off the same patterns as they were while they were visually processing the image. In short, they were ‘daydreaming’ about or reflecting on the image. What’s interesting about the study is they found that the mice would only ‘daydream’ when they were relaxed and calm. Hence, the ‘quiet waking’ state revelation.
Daydreaming might help with neuroplasticity
Because daydreaming has been a puzzle that scientists have been trying to break for years, the evidence is very early. Looking at how our brains replay past events to form memories and map our hippocampus—the region that plays a key role in memory and our spatial navigation—has been a key study for many scientists. However, there has been little research on how the neurons that replay said events and images, work within other regions of our brain—especially the visual cortex, which receives and processes visual information via our eyes.
“My lab became interested in whether we could record from enough neurons in the visual cortex to understand what exactly the mouse is remembering,” senior author Mark Andermann, professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and professor of neurobiology at HMS, offered as an explanation. “and then connect that information to brain plasticity.”
The findings are interesting because they revealed something nobody expected: the more the mice looked at the images, the more their patterns associated with the images shifted more and more until each involved an entirely new seperate set of neurons would fire.
Researchers found that the patterns of activity (the daydreams) during a mouse’s first few moments of the day, and would often reflect on the most recent image shown. They also found that these early thoughts, would then predict what the pattern would become when it would look at the image later. Curiously, this is not unlike how Artificial Intelligence works, and it could also nod to an interesting idea around how we start and end our days in a world of social media bombardment—and what visuals we start and end our days with.
“When you see two different images many times, it becomes important to discriminate between them. Our findings suggest that daydreaming may guide this process by steering the neural patterns associated with the two images away from each other,” Nguyen said, noting that this relationship needs to be confirmed via more evidence and that by learning to different between the two images, the mouse should be able to respond to each one more specifically in the future.
Daydreaming is as important as sleep
While we are now amid a ‘sleep boom’—from sleep tourism to apps to biohacking trends that promise the best rest for brain health, there has been increasing evidence that quiet waking moments are just as important for neuroplasticity. Another study from last year showed that while sleep is important, vital plasticity mechanisms are also operating during non-sleep states, especially ‘quiet wakefulness’—and that this is a vital factor in memory formation.
Consider this yet another another reason to take a moment to yourself, put down your phone, avoid screens and stop doom scrolling. And hey, you can even daydream in your ice bath or under your red LED light. “We feel pretty confident that if you never give yourself any awake downtime, you’re not going to have as many of these daydream events, which may be important for brain plasticity,” says Andermann.