Daydreaming is a state of mind where thoughts that are experienced by an individual are unrelated to what is going on in the environment around them.
We all experience daydreaming from time-to-time: at school, at work, or at home. It most often happens when we are doing something that we find boring, so our mind begins to drift onto other, more interesting things.
According to a recent study published in Science, people daydream about 47% of the time they are awake. Research was conducted by developing an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals during the day, asking them to report what they were doing and thinking at a particular moment in time.
In our culture there is a stigma about daydreaming. People tend to think that it is a sign of apathy, laziness, or an unfocused mind. However, recent research shows that occasional daydreaming may serve an important purpose in creativity and problem-solving.
Daydreaming can boost creativity
One study in Psychological Science did an interesting experiment showing how daydreaming can benefit creativity. The experiment included 145 undergraduate students who were given a standard test of creativity known as an “unusual use” task.
In this task, they had two minutes to list as many uses as possible for everyday objects such as toothpicks, bricks, and clothes hangers.
(This is also referred to as divergent thinking, because there are multiple possible solutions to a single problem – as opposed to “convergent thinking,” like math problems, where there is usually only one correct answer).
After the “unusual use” task, subjects were then given a 12 minute break. During this time, they were randomly assigned to three different conditions: resting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory task, or doing something so boring that it would elicit mind-wandering. Once the break ended, the subjects were asked again to do the unusual-use task they had just performed several minutes ago.
The study found that individuals who did something “so boring it elicited mind-wandering” performed significantly better than the other two groups during their second attempt at the unusual-use task.
Researchers believe that daydreaming allows certain ideas and problems to “marinate” in our unconscious minds, allowing us to think of new possibilities and solutions, even when we aren’t working on the task directly.
This research is congruent with another study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences which found a correlation between individuals who tend to daydream and an ability to generate new ideas. As it turns out, daydreaming may serve a similar function as regular dreaming, which has also found to spark insights (see this 2004 study published in Nature).
The neuroscience of daydreaming
Up until recently, neuroscientists believed that daydreaming was mostly activated by the “default network” in our brain – which includes the medial pre-frontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex.
These parts of the brain are often associated with easy, routine tasks that don’t require much executive functioning – the types of activities we usually get bored of really quickly.
And because we find these activities boring, we aren’t very focused on our surroundings or trying to achieve a difficult goal, so our brain enters a state of “wakeful rest” that often corresponds with increased activity in this “default network.”
However, an interesting study published in a 2009 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that daydreaming also activates parts of our brain associated with “high-level, complex problem-solving” including the lateral pre-frontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.
This research shows that while we may think of daydreaming as a passive activity, the truth is our mind is often working hard behind the scenes to solve a problem:
“When you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal – say reading a book or paying attention in class – but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships,” says psychology researcher Kalina Christoff.
Daydreaming and a higher working memory
A study published in a 2012 issue of Psychological Science reveals that individuals more prone to daydreaming also have a higher working memory.
As it turns out, daydreaming may be the result of a “larger mental workspace” that allows the brain to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously.
When individuals with higher working memory are engaged in a simple and easy task, they are more likely to deploy additional working memory to think about things other than what they’re doing.
On the other hand, when individuals are engaged in a difficult task that requires a lot of working memory, they are less likely to engage in daydreaming because there are no additional resources to deploy.
How to use daydreaming in your everyday life
Daydreaming clearly has some benefits, and it seems to be a natural byproduct of a healthy and functioning mind. We can actually use daydreaming in our everyday life to aid many different aspects of creativity and problem-solving.
For example, if we are looking for some insight into a problem at work or at home, one thing we can do is take a break by engaging in a simple and boring task that elicits daydreaming.
This will help distract our minds from trying to solve the problem directly (through critical thinking or reason), but also allow our minds to come up with possible solutions unconsciously while we take part in another unrelated activity.
Simple and boring tasks that elicit daydreaming include:
- Going for a walk
- Driving your car
- Feeding birds
- Playing a simple and relaxing game, such as ping-pong (a popular activity at many creative businesses in Silicon Valley)
- Reading a book or news article that doesn’t really interest you
- Tapping your fingers in time with your breathing
Almost any activity that you can do without much effort or focus will be a good way of eliciting daydreaming.
The costs of too much daydreaming
This article focuses on the benefits of daydreaming, but I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that all daydreaming is healthy and wonderful.
Daydreaming can be detrimental if it distracts you from difficult activities that actually require your full attention.
We’ve all had experiences where we make a mistake or don’t notice something important because we are too busy daydreaming inside our heads.
When a particular situation calls for our complete attention, it’s important that we remain focused and not let our minds drift off to things unrelated to what’s going on in front of us.
I describe several meditation exercises in my Meditation Guide that are great tools to help manage your daydreaming so that it doesn’t get out of hand. When you need to stay focused, you’ll be able to catch yourself when you’re daydreaming and re-focus at the task at hand.
Check out more advice, tools, and exercises in The Science of Self Improvement