Julia C. Basso, PhD

Do you ever wonder what your brain does while you daydream?  The majority of adults daydream at least once a day and for many of us, this behavior occurs periodically through the day. 

Daydreaming often occurs during our downtime or when we have a moment to rest.  From an outside perspective, it might look as though we are resting; however, the brain is doing anything but. 

EEG Technique

The brain produces electric fields, and scientists have harnessed this fact to measure it’s activity through a technique called electroencephalography or EEG.  To do this, scientists place a cap covered in electrodes over the heads of participants and record the brain’s activity – which looks like a series of oscillations or sine waves that are composed of many different frequencies. The EEG measures electrical activity generated by neuron activity and also provide time resolution, meaning it can interpret which areas of the brain are being used to process information placed in front of you at any given time and how brain activity responds to stimuli.

The Brain At Rest

woman daydreamingBy doing this while we are daydreaming, scientists have revealed exciting things about the brain at rest. 

One of these frequencies, known as the alpha wave, occurs in the range of 7.5 to 12.5 Hertz (or times per second).  As EEG records populations of neurons, this means that groups of neurons are firing between 7.5 to 12.5 times per second.  When the brain is at rest, alpha activity increases.  Though it was originally thought that alpha activity was simply a marker of the brain at rest, recent research has shown that individuals with higher alpha activity show improvements in reaction time and both short- and long-term memory. 

In addition, alpha activity is impaired in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral ischemia, and carotid artery disease. 

Considering that exercise produces many beneficial effects on the brain including those cognitive processes related to alpha activity, a group of scientists at the Institute of Movement and Neurosciences in Germany asked whether exercise could produce an enhancement in alpha activity of the brain.

Related Article: Exercise, Fitness, And Alzheimer’s Disease

The Study

Ten young adult men who participated in regular exercise (>30 minutes/day on >3 days/week) for the past 2 years engaged in 4 weeks of cycling training.  During these 4 weeks, participants engaged in 3, 30-minute cycling sessions that were conducted at approximately 70% of the individual’s maximal heart rate. 

The brain’s activity during rest was recorded both before and after the exercise intervention.  In addition, prior to and after this experience, brain activity was recorded both before and after a steady state exercise session (similar to the one participants engaged in during the study) and an exhaustive exercise session (to measure their cardiopulmonary fitness).

Exercise Effect On Daydreaming

So how did exercise affect the daydreaming brain?  Acute exercise caused a significant increase in the peak level of alpha activity, which lasted for up to 10 minutes after the cessation of exercise.  However, long-term exercise did not have any additional effects on the peak level of alpha activity.   The authors state that “the results of the present study indicate [that] an acute bout of strenuous physical exercise [activates] mechanisms in the brain which facilitate information processing.” 

There are other factors to be taken into account when studying the brain during daydreaming that may have an effect on the results of the study.

  • You daydream less as you get older- Usually, when someone is daydreaming, it is because they are imagining or anticipating their future. Young children and adolescents have a tendency for grand daydreams of being superheroes or kings and queens. A daydream shifts as we age and eventually diminishes in frequency- potentially with the perspective of our future “shrinking”.
  • You forget what you were doing when you daydream- the type of daydream often effects whether you remember what you were doing or not, but studies have shown if someone is woman doing yogaasked to daydream about their past they are likely to forget what they were doing before that.
  • Daydreaming turns off and does not use certain parts of the brain- There are two parts of the brain. One for making analytical, rational decisions. The other is for empathy- feeling for and relating to others. When your brain is engaged in an analytical task, it turns off the empathetic side of your brain to perform the task. When you daydream, reports find that your brain fluctuates between both sides. As you your mind wanders the analytical side will shut off the empathic side and vice versa
  • Your brain controls your daydreams, not your mind- While these are different sides of the same coin, most of us tend to differentiate our brain from our mind. How we daydream depends on the structure of our brain. Because there are small changes in our brain’s structure over time, the way we daydream also shifts and changes.
  • Daydreaming makes you more creative- Daydreaming allows your mind to wonder and construct relationships between things you may not have considered before.

 This list provides so many factors for variance in results, future research will be needed to investigate the relationship between exercise and daydreaming. 

In the meantime, it is exciting to see that exercise changes the firing activity of the brain’s neurons – even when we are daydreaming!

Takeaway

As acute exercise has been shown to improve attention and information processing speed, these are the exact neural mechanisms that may underlie these exercise-induced improvements in cognition. The improvement of cognitive functioning, concentration, reaction time, and overall physical health mean that you are essentially slowing down your body’s aging process.

The benefits of exercise go way beyond increasing levels of alpha activity. While this can help to alleviate symptoms of depression and Alzheimers, we can also see improved cognition, motor skills, and cognitive functioning. The physical benefits include improved vascular health, prevention and treating hypertension, and improved respiration. For individuals who do not have either depression or Alzheimers, studies have shown massive benefits in longevity and overall health. Meaning, if you are healthy and active, you are less likely to contract these health afflictions. If you do have them, exercise helps to reduce and alleviate these symptoms.

Related Article: A Poor Diet Impairs Memory, But Exercise May Help




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