Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

The Origins of Positive-Constructive Daydreaming

The important difference between mind wandering and daydreaming

[This post was co-authored with Jerome L. Singer]

Once accused of being absent-minded, the founder of American Psychology, William James, quipped that he was really just present-minded to his own thoughts. William James didn’t just live in his own head, but he also studied the phenomenon, coining the term “stream of thought” in 1890. In his famous textbook Principles of Psychology, he opened an early chapter with the following: “We now begin our study of the mind from within”. He clearly saw the internal stream of consciousness as an important topic within psychology.

Daydreaming may be regarded as a feature of William James’ stream of thought. It is characterized by a shift of attention away from focusing on a physical or mental task to a series of thoughts derived from long-term memory (often taking a narrative form). Daydreaming may be regarded as falling within the general phenomenon of mind-wandering except that much of mind-wandering may be characterized by shifts of attention from an already ongoing task towards new sensory reactions in the individual’s physical, social, or bodily environment rather than towards one’s thoughts derived ultimately from long term memory.

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This is an exciting time for mind-wandering in psychology. In the past decade, research has shed much light on the mental state of inattention. Amidst all this research, however, we want to make sure daydreaming doesn’t get overlooked. Here we trace the development of research on daydreaming, and place it within the context of modern research on mind-wandering. We hope this article makes important distinctions which may further future research and theory on these important topics. We want to emphasize the adaptive value of attending to your own internal stream of consciousness—regardless of the label psychologists decide to put on the experience.


Heavily influenced by the writings of William James, Sigmund Freud, and Kurt Lewin, Jerome L. Singer started to develop his research program on daydreaming and the stream of consciousness at Teachers College, Columbia University in the 50’s. The German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin argued for different “levels of reality” —shifts from responses directly evoked by “environmental forces” to possibilities and fantasy. Lewin’s ideas, along with the writings of William James, and Freud’s emphasis upon clinical free association all encouraged Singer’s belief that systematic experimentation was key to exploring “the mind within”.

Singer and his assistant and later close collaborator, John Antrobus, began their study of “decoupled attention” by interviewing volunteer “normal” adults about their daydreams and the circumstances under which they drifted into daydreams. What immediately became clear was that daydreaming is a normal, widespread, human phenomenon that people are aware of consciously and can report reliably on questionnaires. Large numbers of people from different walks of society, gender, and ethnicity reported considerable daydreaming in their daily lives. Additionally, those who reported they daydreamed more in their daily lives also showed similar patterns under systematic laboratory conditions. Singer reported on his exciting findings in his seminal 1966 book “Daydreaming: An Introduction to the Experimental Study of Inner Experience”.

To capture these ongoing mental processes in the laboratory, Singer and his colleagues used carefully controlled procedures based on signal detection research. With this methodology, participants are seated in a soundproof booth and different tones are presented through headphones. The individual is requested to press a button whenever a high or low tone is presented. Correct signal detections are financially rewarded. Every 15 seconds they are also asked to report whether they experienced what psychologist Leonard Giambra refers to as “task-unrelated images or thought” (TUITS). Analysis of the content revealed that people’s task-unrelated thoughts ranged widely from fantasies about the experimenters to highly personal memories or daydreams.

Moving beyond the signal detection approach, Singer and his colleagues used “thought sampling” methods, in which participants were interrupted either during the experiment or in their daily lives by a paging device, in which they had to immediately report their thoughts and emotions. This methodology led to all sorts of interesting research and theory. Another early pioneer was Eric Klinger, whose research showed that most people’s daydreams and night dreams reflect “current concerns” ranging from constant thoughts of incomplete tasks to unresolved desires, ranging from sexual and social strivings to altruistic or to revenge urges and the panoply of human motivations.

These early investigators also noticed that people differed in their styles of daydreaming. To capture these individual differences, Singer and his colleagues developed The Imaginal Processes Inventory (IPI). For a full list of the correlates of this inventory, see this book chapter. Three main styles of daydreaming emerged from the scales: Positive-Constructive Daydreaming (representing playful, wishful and constructive imagery), Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming (representing obsessive, anguished fantasies), and Poor Attentional Control (representing the inability to concentrate on ongoing thought or external tasks). Psychologist Lenoard Giambra and his colleagues made an important contribution to the literature by using the IPI to measure daydreaming patterns across the lifespan.

Tang and Singer found that these three different styles of daydreaming were associated with different basic personality traits drawn from the well studied “Big Five”. A Positive-Constructive daydreaming style was associated with Openness to Experience, reflecting a curiosity, sensitivity, and exploration of ideas, feelings, and sensations. Poor Attentional Control was related to low levels of Conscientiousness, and Guilty-Dysphoric daydreaming was positively related to neuroticism. Tang and Singer concluded: “The convergence of these models…suggests that these factorial structures are probably reflections of something fundamental about our brain and our physiological experience.” It turns out, they were right.


With the emergence of modern cognitive neuroscience research, came the ability to physically see what happens in our brain when we turn our attention inward. Current neuroimaging research supports Singer’s idea, proposed in his 1966 book, that daydreaming is the default mental state of the human mind. Researchers have discovered a brain network—the default network— which consists mainly of communication among the medial temporal lobe, and the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices. Research shows that this particular brain network is related to various aspects of our self, such as our self-representations, dreams, imaginations, current concerns, autobiographical memories, and perspective-taking ability. Those with higher default network activity during rest have a tendency to “mind-wander” more frequently in their daily lives.

This brain network must not be confused, however, with the working memory brain network. Consisting mainly of communication between the lateral frontal and parietal cortices, the working memory system involves attention to the outside world. This brain network is highly active when one must concentrate on an externally imposed task, such as listening to a boring classroom lecture, or taking an IQ test. In most people, the working memory network and the default network “anticorrelate” with each other; when one network is activated, the other is deactivated. This is generally a good thing! Sometimes it’s important to quiet the inner chatter and pay attention to other people’s noise or significant communication efforts.

In recent years, Michael J. Kane and his colleagues at the Attention and Memory Laboratory at University of North Carolina at Greensboro have conducted fascinating research showing that individual differences in functioning of the working memory network are related to mind-wandering. In a recent study, they had participants complete various measures of working memory and attentional control. Participants also completed measures of reading comprehension that consisted of materials encountered in daily life. They found that people’s inability to maintain on-task thoughts was related to errors in reading comprehension, and those with higher levels of working memory and attentional control showed less off-task thoughts during reading and also performed better on the reading comprehension tasks.

In other studies, Kane and his colleagues used experience-sampling. In one study, over the course of 7 days, participants were instructed 8 times a day to report when their thoughts had wandered from their current activity. They found that those with a higher working memory were able to maintain on-task thoughts better, and mind-wandered less, than those scoring lower in working memory. Consistent with the earlier studies by Singer, another study found that participants whose minds wandered during a laboratory task also mind-wandered more in their daily lives. The researchers concluded that “The propensity to mind-wander appears to be a stable cognitive characteristic and seems to predict performance difficulties in daily life, just as it does in the laboratory.” Based on their studies, Kane and Jennifer McVay proposed that mind wandering represents a “failure of executive control” and is influenced both by (a) the presence of automatically generated thoughts induced by the environment and mental cues, and (b) the ability of the working memory brain network to deal with this interference.

Kane and his colleagues are certainly correct that there are conditions that increase the likelihood of mind wandering while reducing the ability to notice that the mind has wandered. Jonathan Smallwood and his colleagues have found this to be the case among people drinking alcohol and smokers deprived of their nicotine. Antrobus, Singer and their colleagues have found that pre-experimental conditions such as overhearing a simulated radio broadcast announcing dramatic U.S. war involvement can increase mind wandering, as can systematically varying the gender of the experimenter and participants when the two are of the opposite sex. Kane and McVay’s research does also show that individual differences in the ability to control attention contribute to the ability to keep wandering thoughts at bay.

But not all researchers agree that mindwandering reflects a “failure”. Jonathan Smallwood disagrees with Kane’s control-failure interpretation of mindwandering, instead arguing that mind wandering consumes executive resources by accessing a global mental workspace. His research, conducted with Kalina Christoff and other researchers, have found that there is substantial overlap between the brain regions activated during mind wandering and during concentration on an external task. In Smallwood’s interpretation, mind-wandering is not so much a failure of working memory as it is a competition between two different—and equally as important— streams of consciousness.

Whether or not mind wandering represents a “control failure”, of course, depends on who is making the judgment. From the vantage point of the experimenter, or teacher, who wants the person to concentrate on their task, mind wandering is an epic fail. From the vantage point of the mind wanderer, who may be preoccupied by dreams of future success, or concerns about a recent breakup, such thoughts may sometimes be much more important than performance on the externally imposed task. As Bernard Baars bluntly (but so aptly) puts it:

“It is useful to remember that experimental subjects who are college students are in the midst of major life changes and that they may well be riding an emotional rollercoaster that experimenters simply do not know about. Under those conditions it is difficult to maintain that beep detection is or even should be the most relevant task in their lives, even during an experiment. Teachers and professors spend much of their lives drawing the attention of distractible students to their favorite topics, whether it be medieval scholasticism, eye-blink conditions, or the rules of French grammar. Perhaps our classroom values are spilling into the research domain; our emphasis on executive control of attention may, in fact, include a bit of academic imperialism. Fortunately, such biases should be open to correction.”


As we see it, you don’t have to choose between high working memory or daydreaming. Every time your mind wanders from an external stimulus, it isn’t an executive control failure, and every time you are able to focus on an external task, it isn’t necessarily a win. Let’s come back to the Imaginal Processes Inventory. Only one of the three main styles of daydreaming represents poor attentional failure.

Don’t get us wrong, we do think that Michael Kane’s research program is important. After all, there are times when you do want to pay attention. When you’re trying to read something for comprehension, such as when taking a high stakes test such as the SAT’s or GRE’s, that’s not the time to have sexual fantasies or have dysphoric thoughts about your current existential crisis. Increasing the ability to control attention when you want to is an important skill, and has a place in psychological research.

But among all this talk of “mind wandering” and “executive control failure”, let’s please not forget about the third daydreaming style that has been identified: Positive-Constructive Daydreaming. This style of daydreaming—which Jerome L. Singer has spent most of his career studying— is a normal, universal feature of human cognition. As Eric Klinger and his colleagues have shown, Positive-Constructive Daydreaming is not pathological. Jonathan Smallwood and Jonathan Schooler have argued that mind wandering is a goal-driven process, even though it’s not directed toward an external task. As they also note in a recent review, mind wandering may serve multiple adaptive functions, such as future planning, sorting out current concerns, cycling through different information streams, distributed learning (vs. cramming), and creativity.

In most instances when you don’t have to focus on an external task, it’s important to build your positive-constructive daydreaming muscle. Not all of life is about apprehending the current outside environment. Planning for the future, even imagining a future self, can be just as important.

This post originally appeared at Scientific American

Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist specializing in the development of intelligence, creativity, and imagination in education, business, and society. Scott applies a variety of perspectives to come to a richer understanding and appreciation of all kinds of minds and ways of achieving greatness. He is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University, Co-founder of The Creativity Post, and Chief Scientific Officer of The Future Project. Follow on Google+ or Twitter

Dr. Jerome L. Singer is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology in 1950 from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as training as a Psychoanalyst. He is a specialist in research on the psychology of imagination and daydreaming. Dr. Singer has authored articles on thought processes, imagery, personality, and psychotherapy, as well as on children's pretend play and the effects of television. 

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.


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