Psychologists long thought that sustained attention and vigilance were the gold standard for cognitive performance. Selective attention provides the information that is used in working memory. As working memory improves, so does executive function and goal-directed activity. Distraction was thought to be the enemy of attention. However, lack of distraction may result in boredom, also associated with negative emotions and poor cognitive performance. From what few naturalistic studies we have, it is clear that boredom increases inside buildings and during circadian lulls, while its opposite, vitality, increases after exposure to bright light. Working memory and positive emotions have been shown to improve for people working near windows, in spite of visual distractions, suggesting a net positive effect on attention.

Early psychological research held that mind wandering was also the enemy of attention, and produced only negative outcomes. However, recent fMRI imaging has shown that mind wandering is associated with the new discovered ‘default mode network’ (DMN), a ubiquitous and rhythmic cognitive pattern, which is the opposite of the type of directed-task performance commonly studied. Instead the DMN seems to support the ‘autobiographical self,’ helping people remain self-aware and engage in mental time travel, i.e. remembering the past and planning for the future, and importantly, engage in incubation, i.e. insightful problem solving.

Researchers are finding the DMN is part of a universal cognitive rhythm of inward then outward awareness. It has many similarities to REM sleep, and thus is aptly nick-named daydreaming. Observations from writers and other creative people seem to confirm these relationships, and reinforce the hypothesis that views to the outside world may help support this essential cognitive function.