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Daydreaming could increase your brain’s neuroplasticity, a new Harvard-backed study shows. Why researchers are touting the importance of ‘quiet wakefulness’

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Your thoughts wander during an unnecessary meeting that could have easily been an email. 

Feel guilty? Don’t—your seemingly self-indulgent mental detour may have boosted your brain’s neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change and adapt due to factors like injury and learning.

Researchers at Harvard tracked the activity of mice’s brains while they looked at two images featuring distinct checkerboard patterns. During periods of rest between images, they found that the mice’s thoughts would drift back to those images. How could they tell? The patterns of neurons fired while they were daydreaming looked incredibly similar to the distinct patterns fired when each image was originally shown.

What researchers didn’t expect to find: that the slightly altered pattern of neurons fired during daydreaming would influence which neurons fired when the image was shown again, in a process they call “representational drift.” What’s more, the patterns of neurons fired for each image became increasingly distinct, until each involved an almost entirely unique set of neurons.

The findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

“There’s drift in how the brain responds to the same image over time, and these early daydreams can predict where the drift is going,” senior author Mark Andermann, professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical school, said in a news release on the study.

The importance of ‘quiet wakefulness’

The study provides preliminary evidence that daydreams are involved in neuroplasticity.

“When you see two different images many times, it becomes important to discriminate between them,” Nghia Nguyen, a doctoral student in neurobiology at the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, said in a news release.

The team’s findings suggest that repeated daydreaming may eventually help the brain distinguish between similar images, she added.

The study aligns with others that have shown that entering a state of “quiet wakefulness” after an experience can boost learning and memory in both rodents and humans.

Just what is quiet wakefulness? It’s a state of relaxed environmental awareness that helps the mind process complex thoughts, researchers say.

Given the results of the study, it may be important to make time for moments of quiet wakefulness that lead to daydreaming, researchers say. For mice, that may mean taking a pause from viewing a series of images. For humans, it might entail putting down their smartphone to allow daydreaming to occur.

“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,” Andermann said.

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