Shail Bhatt explores the neuroscience of zoning out and daydreaming.
You’re listening to your friend talk to you about her relationship woes when suddenly you start staring off into a distance: your eyes lock and your friend’s voice is put into the background while you start thinking about other things. Snap back to reality and you find your friend crying and you have no idea why. You lost track, you spaced out, you zoned out. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. Our brains apparently spend 13% of the time offline, but why can’t we just stay focused?
Mind wandering occurs because our stream of thought is continuously dynamic and fluidic in nature, and so our attention often drifts to irrelevant thoughts. When our mind wanders and we escape into our inner world, we often tend to have pupil dilation and frequent blinking. Usually, the tracks of the train of thought divert due to feelings or thoughts generated by oneself, rather than the environment. These thoughts are often irrelevant to the task at hand, and are self-generated. The self-generation of thought can occur involuntarily, like when reading a book, or voluntarily, when we try to mentally plan something. Self-generated thought, rather than task-related thought, causes these episodes of zoning out to be more strategic or spontaneous and evidence suggests that these episodes may be vital for creative and imaginative thoughts. One study found a positive correlation between mind wandering and the tendency to generate solutions in a social problem-solving task.
Self-generated thoughts that occur during mind wandering are often focused on the near future, which facilitate planning and mapping out of actions, which may be beneficial, because they declutter the obstacles ahead. A second outcome from mind wandering is the capacity to generate creative and innovative thoughts, as mentioned before. Additionally, mind wandering may enable people to place their experiences in a meaningful context, and draw relationships and connections to them. It has been seen that drawing meaning from situations can help improve well-being. Finally, zoning out may also be useful by providing an escape from boredom and monotony by giving the mind a much-needed break, which can help the brain to effectively ‘reboot’.
The actual mechanisms behind zoning out are not yet 100% confirmed, but there is a working theory. According to one line of thought, the neuroscience behind mind wandering involves the LC-NE system (locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system). The locus coeruleus is a small part of the brain involved in attention, memory, sleep cycle, posture, stress, and arousal. In addition to all of these, the locus coeruleus is also the point of norepinephrine synthesis in the brain. Norepinephrine, or noradrenaline, is a neurotransmitter involved in maintaining attention and vigilance in the brain, and fluctuations can cause the mind to shift focus or zone out. When the overall LC activity is low, individuals are inattentive and more prone to spacing out. When the levels of LC activity are intermediate, individuals are focused, but if the levels of LC activity are too high, individuals are surprisingly more susceptible to stress and distraction. However, repetitive zoning out for long periods of time may be symptomatic of stress, a poor diet, sleep deprivation, and fatigue, all of which affect the LC-NE system, amongst other neural circuits.
In summary, we now know that zoning out is commonplace, often needed, and frequently advantageous. There is a strong possibility that many readers zoned out over the course of this article, and if you did, then long story short, it’s okay to do so!