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Can daydreaming improve academics?

Mary Immordino-Yang
USC assistant professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang examines the neurobiology of the brain at rest. (Photo/Steve Cohn)

At a time of high-stakes testing in schools, a USC paper in press at the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science reveals that the long-lost art of introspection — and yes, even daydreaming — may be more valuable than one thought.

According to the paper, diminishing opportunities for young people to look inward and reflect could have negative effects on their well-being, morality and academic success.

USC assistant professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang co-authored the paper, “Rest Is Not Idleness,” which examines the neurobiology of the brain at rest or in “default mode.”

Individual differences in the ways a person’s brain activates during rest relate to socioemotional functioning like self-awareness, moral judgment and memory, as well as learning, such as reading comprehension and divergent thinking. Brain activation during rest also predicts how well people will perform attention-demanding tasks afterward.

“We focus on the outside world in education and don’t look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts,” she said. “What are we doing in schools to support kids turning inward?”

A child with a wandering mind in the classroom may perform poorly on the task that requires concentration. Part of helping the child to focus better, the research suggested, is to help him or her learn to manage inward and outward attention more appropriately. Attending to tasks effectively is essential for gathering new information from lessons. But the reflection a child may learn to engage during mind wandering also is potentially critical for healthy development and learning in the longer term.

Immordino-Yang, who has appointments at the USC Rossier School of Education and the Brain and Creativity Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said the networks that underlie a focus inward versus outward likely areco-dependent, and the ability to regulate and move between them probably improves with maturity and practice.

The researcher worries that teens transfixed by texts or who spend no waking hours with their cell phones off may be training their brains away from internally focused states that are the basis for moral and emotional reflection.

Brain scans show how people with autism, for example, have low connectivity between the inward and outward-focusing networks, while people with schizophrenia have hyper connectivity of the networks, according to Immordino-Yang. And individuals with high IQs have especially high coherence in their brains during rest, presumably facilitating more “cross-talk” between distant brain regions, allowing the person to connect disparate pieces of information together.

Meaning-making may not be compatible with task focus when it comes to young people, as they easily are distracted by their external environment, she said. Children need the time and skills for internal reflection, and excessive focus on the outside environment due to activities or living conditions may hinder the development of emotional learning and well-being, as well as abstract, moral and social-emotional thinking, biasing youths toward morally “shallow” values, the researcher explained.

Previous research has shown that when children are given time and skills for reflecting, they can become more motivated, less anxious, perform better on tests and plan more effectively for the future.

Immordino-Yang argued that teachers need to distinguish between a loss of focus and mindful reflection, teaching students skills for constructive internal processing and productive reflection. She also warned against an overuse of social media among teens, which appears to be harmful to the development of the higher-thinking abilities and associated benefits.

“Consistently imposing overly high-attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about ‘what happened’ or ‘how to do this’ to constructing knowledge about ‘what this means for the world and for the way I live my life,’ ” she said.

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Can daydreaming improve academics?

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