Is it possible that daydreaming is not such a waste of time after all? That while we’re taking a break from our immediate surroundings, our brains are working to process recent memories without a conscious effort on our part?
Thanks to a $527,551 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Furman University Assistant Professor of Psychology Erin Wamsley plans to find out.
“While ‘zoning out’ during our daily tasks is typically considered to be a waste of time, those moments of being lost in thought may be essential to the formation of memory,” Wamsley said. “That’s what we hope to discover with our research.”
Wamsley said that even when we are sitting still and doing nothing, the mind and brain are continuously switching between two distinct states—an “online” state where we are paying attention to our immediate surroundings, and an “offline” state where our attention turns inward to thoughts of things like the past and future.
“We are hypothesizing that the early stages of memory processing occur specifically during moments of this offline state, which are interspersed throughout the day,” Wamsley said. “By developing new methods of measuring these waking states and their function, we can learn more about the formation and retention of long-term memories.”
As a part of NSF’s Research in Undergraduate Institutions program, Wamsley said the research project will provide research training for approximately 12 undergraduate students over the course of three years, including members of underrepresented minority groups and students from underserved public high schools in South Carolina.
Wamsley joined Furman’s Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience at Furman in 2014. She has received several grants to fund her research at the Furman Sleep Laboratory, where she and her students study how the brain processes memories during sleep as well as the relationship of sleep-dependent memory processing to dream experiences.
She began her academic career at Guilford College in North Carolina, where Wamsley double-majored in psychology and philosophy. She went on to complete her doctoral studies at the City University of New York. After earning her Ph.D. in 2007, Wamsley had a postdoctoral fellowship in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, where she was later promoted to instructor of psychiatry.
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