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Why Our Minds Wander. The Neuroscience of Daydreaming

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

It's been shown that about 50% of our thoughts are off task. But why are we prone to lose focus and what effect does this have on our mood?

I've come across an article by the neuroscientist Patricia Sharp (1). It's about meditation and why it feels blissful. But, within the article she also gives an interesting theory as to why we gravitate towards idly daydreaming.

The article is well written with real world examples and doesn't assume a lot of background knowledge. If you feel inclined, I would definitely recommend it. You'll find the link below.

She likens daydreaming to addiction- it can be difficult to focus because we are addictively drawn to mind wandering.

Why Behaviours Are Repeated

Situations that make us feel good (e.g., delicious food, a gift, sexual activity, and drugs of abuse- on the extreme end of the scale) induce the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a brain region called the nucleus accumbens. This is widely described as the pleasure area of the brain, and this process has been colloquially coined the dopamine hit.

Consequently, we make a memory that this behaviour results in a good feeling, and as a consequently we're more likely to repeat it. Because after the association is made, things that are linked with the rewarding event can now, by themselves, induce the release of dopamine.

However, it's not all good feelings... as time passes and we repeat the behaviour we don't receive as much dopamine. However, the behaviour has been learnt, it will often continue even though it's not as rewarding as it once was.

Something we often found rewarding in the past we're more likely to do again even though it doesn't feel as good as it used to.

Why We Repeatedly Daydream

Now here's the theory outline in the article- when our mind wanders towards daydreaming we initially get a hit of dopamine and feel the rewarding effects. We may be thinking about the delicious dinner we had the other night, or thinking about activities we are going to do after work, etc. This reinforces the mind wandering. But as described above, over time this daydreaming loses its positive feeling, we find ourselves doing it even though it doesn't feel as rewarding as it once did.

To illustrate this, Patricia describes some interesting research where participants (2,250 adults) were called randomly throughout the day and asked if they were engaged in a task or if their mind wandering immediately before the call? Mind wandering was reported in 46.9% of the phone calls.

The researchers also asked each participant what they were doing (e.g., walking, listening to music, reading, etc) and how good did they feel on a scale from 1-100. The results showed that what the participants were doing at the time effected their mood (highest scores for engaging in conversations and lowest scores for being at work). The greatest influence on mood, however, was mind wandering. There was a reduction in happiness scores when the participants were daydreaming.

This has led Patricia to propose that dopamine levels are reduced by mind wandering and makes us feel unhappy, she states:

"In fact, the central claim of this paper is that our constant engagement in compulsive, repetitive thought patterns tends to cause an ongoing, powerfully conditioned decrease in dopamine release, so that dopamine is chronically below what would be expected in the absence of these ongoing mental patterns."

She then goes on to say, and I quote again because I think it's so well said:

"Thus, we are left with obsessive tendencies to daydream about winning the lottery or getting through our workload, but the sense of relaxation or happiness to all aspects of these daydreams erodes: these thoughts become empty obsessions."

Then no doubt we find new things to daydream about, and the cycle continues.

Negative Thoughts Are Also Reinforced

This article suggests that daydreams, because of their ability to induce the release of dopamine, can lead to an addiction to mind wandering. However, negative thoughts can also be reinforced through dopamine release (2), without the feelings of reward.

It's been proposed that dopamine is more than just a feel-good neurotransmitter, it calls our attention to anything important- positive or negative (3). As a result, it makes sense that mind wandering about a negative event can also be addictive, leading to rumination. But there are practices that can reduce rumination and mind-wandering, such as meditation.

About the Author

Kathie Overeem (PhD, Psychology) has over 13 years neuroscience research experience. Her MSc and PhD focused on how we form and express fear memories, since 2018 she has worked therapeutically with survivors of trauma using trauma-sensitive yoga (i.e., TCTSY).

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(2) Abraham, A. D., Neve, K. A., & Lattal, K. M. (2014). Dopamine and extinction: a convergence of theory with fear and reward circuitry. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 108, 65-77.

(3) D'Esposito, M., & Postle, B. R. (2015). The cognitive neuroscience of working memory. Annual Reviews of Psychology, 3(66), 115-142.

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