While teachers and adults spend a good deal of time discouraging daydreaming, research argues it could be a good thing. Welcome news for space cadets like myself.
Daydreaming, or mind wandering, is characterised as thoughts that are disconnected from the environment and the (often mundane) task at hand. As a prolific daydreamer, I was comforted to hear I’m not alone, with researchers estimating we all spend between 30-50% of our waking hours daydreaming.
Yet, for something that comes so naturally and consumes so much of our time, it sure receives a bad rap. And sure, mind wandering isn’t great for reading comprehension, driving, attention, operating heavy machinery or that long statistics exam. But we just can't help it, leading researchers to believe that daydreaming must offer some sort of evolutionary advantage.
So what exactly is the brainy advantage? And how do we harness it?
1. Defocusing helps us focus
Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at NYU believes daydreams are essential to helping individuals achieve their goals. She says that fantasizing about the anticipated achievement of a goal helps us to stay motivated and committed. In fact, by reflecting on present reality and comparing it to fantasies about a desired future, we are driven to act.
Freud similarly believed in the power of daydreams, stating that they represent “the human desire to alter the existing and often unsatisfactory or unpleasant world of reality”. Additional studies have discovered that mind-wandering that focuses on future planning, and the steps involved in reaching a goal, help us to better prepare. So, your daydreaming isn’t procrastination, it’s planning...depending on it’s content.
Science says: Evidence suggests that people who daydream are at an advantage in attaining the goals they fantasise about.
2. Daydreaming improves creativity
Neuroscience research has shown that mind wandering lights up connections across a series of interacting brain regions known as the default mode network (DMN). This network is most commonly active when the brain is at wakeful rest, when it’s planning the future, or focusing inwards. Recent studies suggest that creative thinking is enhanced when our DMN is activated, as well as it’s neighbouring network, the frontoparietal control network (FPCN).
So what are these networks up to? The DMN helps us to connect remotely associated ideas, a process known to help with creative ideation. Think: cupcake + ATM. When the DMN and the FPCN are talking to each other, the FPCN can help steer ideas into a place where they can be actioned. In fact, those who daydream actually demonstrate increased connectivity between these two networks.
Science says: Stuck for ideas? Schedule in some time to intentionally daydream
3. Daydreaming can increase performance
Studies use what is essentially a version of the marshmallow test for adults (using money in the place of candy) to measure how long we will wait for a large delayed reward, rather than settling for a smaller immediate reward; a behaviour termed ‘delay-discounting’. Researchers found that people whose minds wander more also tend to be more patient, and hence make better decisions. This may be because daydreaming allows us to escape the discomfort of real life, meaning we can withstand the frustration of waiting longer for a reward.
This kind of ‘off-line’ escape also appears to mirror the kind of memory consolidation processes that occur during sleep. Research conducted by Dr Joel Pearson and colleagues found that those who took a break between training tasks to let their minds wander performed better on the task the following day, compared to those who trained non-stop. BRB, taking a snack break.
Science says: Sometimes more is less. It’s OK to let your mind wander so it can come back with renewed strength.
As you dig deeper you find there’s evidence supporting both sides of the daydream debate. It is clear however, that daydreaming has its benefits; when used at the right time, and in the right place.
At the very least for me, my guilty pleasure just got a little less guilty.
RESEARCH ASSISTANT, SIL, SYDNEY
In a previous life Annabel was a snow creature, who exited the competitive ski circuit to pursue psychology. She’s found a new, warmer home in the intersection between behavioural research and design strategy.