I recently found an article on Discover Magazine titled Stop Paying Attention: Zoning Out Is a Crucial Mental State. The article analyzes a series of studies, mostly by psychologist Jonathan Schooler, on mind wandering.
The studies suggests that letting the mind wander can help us do critical thinking, even if we don’t realize it. It’s the reason people have moments of great insight in the shower and why comedians carry a pen with them–that perfect punchline might come to you while zoning out in a meeting.
This doesn’t mean that you should let your mind go free at all times–when our minds wander we are more likely to make mistakes and less likely to commit new information to memory. Instead, designating periods for free thinking can give you the benefits of letting your mind wander while keeping you from zoning out while your boss is giving an important presentation.
Just let your boss know the next time he catches you day dreaming that you’re actually working on that key issue you’ve been scrambling to solve, you’re just letting the subconscious do it.
Source: Stop Paying Attention: Zoning Out Is a Crucial Mental State, by Carl Zimmer. Discover Magazine, June 2009.