Gathering Wool: Fear Hijacks Daydreams

Alison Gopnik: “When neuroscientists first began to use imaging technology, they noticed something odd: A distinctive brain network lighted up while the subjects waited for the experiment to begin. The scientists called it ‘the default network.’ It activated when people were daydreaming, woolgathering, recollecting and imagining the future. Some studies suggest that we spend up to nearly 50% of our waking lives in this kind of ‘task-unrelated thought’—almost as much time as we spend on tasks.”

“Other brain areas constrain and modify mind-wandering—such as parts of our prefrontal cortex, the control center of the brain … creative thought involves a special interaction between these control systems and mind-wandering. In this activity, the control system holds a particular problem in mind but permits the brain to wander enough to put together old ideas in new ways and find creative solutions.”

“At other times … fear can capture and control our wandering mind. For example, subcortical emotional parts of the brain, like the amygdala, are designed to quickly detect threats. They alert the rest of the brain, including the default network. Then, instead of turning to the task at hand or roaming freely, our mind travels only to the most terrible, frightening futures. Fear hijacks our daydreams.”

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