If you're the type whose head is constantly lost in daydreams, you've no doubt been given grief about your inability to focus your whole life. "Snap out of it and pay attention," your high school math teacher might have barked at you. Or "Earth calling," your snarky co-worker may joke, waving his hand in front of your eyes.
But while these less imaginative types consider your dreamy nature a character flaw or a symptom of your lack of dedication to trigonometry or your office's weekly status meeting, science knows better. A new study suggests that your capacity to daydream is, in fact, a sign of your high intelligence. (Hat tip to Quartz for the pointer.)
"People with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering," says Eric Schumacher, the Georgia Tech associate psychology professor who co-authored the new research.
It takes a lot of thoughts to fill a big brain.
This makes sense intuitively. Of course Greg from accounting's droning update isn't enough to hold your attention if your brain demands more stimulation than a 15-minute monologue on spreadsheet formats. But Schumacher's team set out to prove the link between daydreams and intelligence in a more scientific way.
They recruited more than 100 volunteers and then scanned their brains with an MRI machine while they focused on a fixed point to give the researchers a baseline sense of how the participants' brains functioned at rest. They also evaluated subjects' intelligence and creativity and asked them to report how much of a daydreamer they considered themselves to be.
The researchers' first observation: high measured intelligence and creativity went together with high levels of self-reported mind wandering. But when the researchers looked at the MRIs, the results got even more interesting: Not only do frequent daydreamers do better on IQ tests, they also have brains that appear more efficient in brain scans.
This combo of data led the researchers to conclude that a lot of mind wandering isn't about a failure to pay attention; it's simply that smart people often need to pay less attention to get the gist of what's happening around them, leaving plenty of mental capacity to plan a beach vacation or dream up a new business idea.
"People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad. You try to pay attention and you can't. Our data are consistent with the idea that this isn't always true. Some people have more efficient brains," Schumacher commented.
The findings give credence to the hoary old stereotype of the absent-minded professor, who is lost in thought but still able to snap back into the world around her when needed. (I'm also reminded of that scene in The Social Network where the Mark Zuckerberg character appears to be distracted in a CS class only to easily answer the annoyed professor's questions when he quizzes him on his way out the door.)
So next time Greg in accounting (or your boss) gives you grief about being tuned out in a boring meeting, you can fantasize about telling them that they are sadly mistaken. Your lack of focus isn't a failure to concentrate, it is instead a marker of your above-average intelligence.