Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that the part of the brain associated with daydreaming also allows us to perform tasks on autopilot mode faster and better.
A collection of brain regions known as the “default mode network” (DMN) is active when we are daydreaming or thinking about the past or future.
The brain network involved in daydreaming plays an important role in allowing us to perform routine tasks efficiently, without investing too much time and energy.
The researchers have found that people are capable of switching to autopilot, just once after they become familiar with the given task, like riding on the familiar route.
In the study, 28 volunteers took part in a task while lying inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Functional MRI (fMRI) measures changes in brain oxygen levels as a proxy for neural activity.
Participants were shown four cards and asked to match a target card to one of these cards.
There were three possible rules, matching by colour, shape or number. Volunteers were not told the rule, but rather had to work it out for themselves through trial and error.
The most interesting differences in brain activity occurred when comparing the two stages of the task, acquisition (where the participants were learning the rules by trial and error) and application (where the participants had learned the rule and were now applying it).
During the acquisition stage, the dorsal attention network, which has been associated with the processing of attention-demanding information, was more active.
However, in the application stage, where participants utilized learned rules from memory, the DMN was more active.
In this stage, the stronger the relationship between activity in the DMN and in regions of the brain associated with memory, such as the hippocampus, the faster and more accurately the volunteer was able to perform the task.
Lead author Deniz Vatansever says the DMN allows us to predict what is going to happen and reduce our need to think. DMN plays an important role in allowing us to switch to ‘autopilot’ once we are familiar with a task.
The researchers think that the system may be the “autopilot” that allows us to drive to work with a minimum of conscious effort. The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.