Rethinking daydreaming

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Your mind often escapes when you’re in a boring meeting or washing the dishes. Previously considered undesirable and unhealthy, science has come around to the silver linings of letting our thoughts drift.

Losing yourself in thought ain’t so bad. Image credit: Wes Hicks on Unsplash.

Driven to distraction (in a good way)

Daydreaming, otherwise called mind-wandering or self-generated thought, often gets a bad rap as something indulgent, unwanted and unproductive. It distracts us from the task immediately at hand and can result in errors. In extreme cases, called maladaptive daydreaming, the behavior can severely impair important functions in everyday life.

Yet research conducted in normal adults show we engage in it anywhere between 3050% of the time in our daily lives. One study found that the only activity during which our mind wanders less than 30% of the time is sex. Even rats engage in mind-wandering.

These observations have convinced scientists of the benefits to letting your thoughts drift. They’ve shown several advantages, including: greater creativity to solve problems, consolidation of memories, opportunity to form a sense of self-identity and continuity over time. Daydreaming enhances socioemotional skills e.g. empathy and also learning by giving us a brief break from tasks.

In healthy people, tests have shown mind-wandering is positively linked to fluid intelligence (ability to reason and think flexibly) and openness to experience (curiosity and exploration of ideas). In turn, openness to experience is a strong predictor of creative achievement.

What happens in our brains when we daydream?

Self-generated thought is most likely to happen when we’re engaged in an undemanding external task, like waiting for the bus.

Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment.

Jerome L. Singer

Focusing on an external task and consciously processing our environment makes use of our brain’s executive control network, which is responsible for impulse control and goal-oriented thinking. By contrast, our default mode network (DMN) is switched on when we’re not actively attending to anything.  The executive control network and DMN are usually described as being in a tug-of-war with one another. Scientists think that daydreaming occurs when the balance is tilted towards the DMN.

You might think that the brain’s activity would be minimal when DMN is ‘winning’ i.e. when you’re daydreaming. But it’s during this time that the DMN performs ‘housekeeping’ duties like sorting out memories, thinking of the future, and categorising new information. Accordingly, brain imaging studies show many brain areas are active, with some even more so than when performing tasks. Daydreaming also recruits additional brain regions, such as the insula, which is involved in awareness of our body’s internal functions as well as emotions.   

Content and timing matters

As far back as the 1960s, American psychologist Jerome L. Singer recognised that not all wandering thoughts were bad. Since then, scientists have identified two major influences on whether or not daydreaming is beneficial.

One factor is content.

Mind-wandering allows us to ‘time travel’ and reinterpret past experiences when we receive new information. However, repetitive negative self-generated thoughts (‘rumination’) about the past is linked with depression and anxiety. In contrast, daydreaming about the future and weighing possible options, can be helpful since it can lead to better economic and moral choices that rely on patience instead of impulse. Envisioning failure can even motivate us to avoid it.

The other crucial factor is timing.

Obviously, drifting off to la-la-land is bad when you need to pay attention to a difficult task, have an imminent deadline or when the external environment is risky e.g. crossing the road. (Although, some scientists say that if you can stay on-task but simultaneously mind-wander, it may be a sign that you have a greater working memory capacity – a more ‘efficient’ brain.)

But there are some situations when a drifting mind is good.

Science advocates that when solving a problem requiring creative thinking, you can achieve better results by letting your thoughts stray while doing an undemanding task. For me, it’s when I’m showering or brushing my teeth. This strategy is better than working through the problem non-stop, simply resting, or engaging in another demanding task.

Interestingly, not all daydreaming is unintentional – about half the time we allow it to happen.

Scientists think it is the ability to restrict when mind-wandering occurs – to deliberately allow it only during undemanding situations – is the key to success. In an investigation of 274 college students, those that could focus during demanding tasks but reported frequent daydreaming in other situations, tended to be intelligent and were higher achievers. In fact, brain imaging in people who intentionally daydream has revealed they have better connectivity between (and perhaps control of) their brains’ executive control network and DMN…  blah blah blah…

… Have you drifted off amid all this science talk? Well now you have good reason(s) to. Happy daydreaming!

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