Dreams Decoded

Dreams captivate us for a reason. Their meaning may elude us, but whether we're running through a nightmare, floating off in the middle of class, or lost in a late-night reverie, dreams always seem to have something to say.

Why and How You Daydream

What is the stuff of daydreams? Your brain's default network may have the answer

Everyone, or nearly everyone, reports daydreaming on a regular basis, with studies indicating that as many as 96% of adults engage in having at least one bout of daily fantasies. Psychologists have long been interested in the vagaries of our mental meanderings. William James, credited with being the founder of American psychology, famously studied streams of consciousness to provide “data” for his functionalist theory of the mind. In 1890, he wrote that “When absorbed in intellectual attention we become so inattentive to outer things as to be ‘absent-minded,’ ‘abstracted,’ or ‘distraits.’All revery or concentrated meditation is apt to throw us into this state that transient lapses in the control of attention may lead to a shift in attention from the external world to internal mentation.”

While James pursued his studies of consciousness, across the Atlantic, University of Leipzig psychologist Wilhelm Wundt used introspection to understand how the mind works. They may have had similar methods, but they had very different theories. James was interested in finding out how the mind adapts to experiences; Wundt wanted to learn about the mind’s structures. Today, neuroscientists combine the best of both of these worlds, looking at brain scans while their study participants complete various mental tasks.  Serendipitously, it was while studying the brain’s activation during tasks involving memory and attention that neuroscientists first discovered the neural basis for daydreaming. While in between tasks, the researchers noticed that a set of brain structures in their participants started to become more active. These same structures turned off as soon as the participants began to engage in the cognitive tasks that were the original focus of the research.

Eventually, scientists were able to pinpoint this set of specific brain structures which we now know as the brain’s “default network.”  This network links parts of the frontal cortex, the limbic system, and several other cortical areas involved in sensory experiences.  While active, the default network turns itself on and generates its own stimulation.  The technical term for such a product of the default network is “stimulus independent thought,” a thought about something other than events that originate from the outside environment.  In common speech, stimulus independent thoughts make up fantasies and daydream, the stuff of mind wandering.  

Apart from entertaining us when we’re bored, what does the default network do for us?  Some researchers propose that it’s actually a type of watchdog or sentinel, ready to spring into action when we need to attend to an outside stimulus.  However, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the default network is there to help us explore our inner experiences (Buckner et al., 2008).  Specifically, we engage our default network when we’re thinking about our past experiences, imagining an event that might take place in the future, trying to understand what other people are thinking, and assisting us in making moral decisions.  

It seems, then, that our default network makes daydreaming possible.  The effect of daydreaming on our psyche may depend, furthermore, on the nature of our daydreams. In a series of questionnaire studies, York University psychologist Raymond Mar and associates (2012) asked men and women ranging from 18 to 85 to report on the frequency and vividness of their daydreams as well as their life satisfaction, levels of loneliness, and social support. For men, the more frequent their daydreams, the lower their life satisfaction. For women, vividness but not frequency was related to lower life satisfaction. For both genders, people who daydreamed about their close family and friends reported higher levels of life satisfaction. Those who daydreamed about romantic partners that they didn’t currently have (past or potential), strangers, or fictional characters were lonelier, had less lower social support, and tended to have lower life satisfaction.

Although this was a correlational study, the Mar findings suggest ways to use daydreaming to your advantage. Your daydreams will be more likely to bring you happiness if they’re about the actual people you know rather than the imaginary people you would like to know.  The Mar findings also suggest that there are times when it’s better not to daydream.  Anytime you’ve drifted off to la-la land while someone is giving a boring talk, speech, or seminar, you may suddenly come to the realization that you have no idea what this person just said. You’ll be in trouble if you need to take a test or answer a question directed toward the inattentive you.  In a social situation, such as a date or family meal, the consequences can prove embarrassing if not relationship-killing.

Other evidence suggests that the content of your daydreams can interfere with your memory, even when you’ve paid attention to the information you’re trying to learn. University of North Carolina Greensboro psychologist Peter Delaney and colleagues (2010) instructed college student participants to daydream about a situation either very much like or very much unlike what they were doing at the moment. Those who were told to imagine themselves in very different circumstances had poorer memories than those who were instructed to daydream about someplace close.  If you’re going to engage in mental time travel, and there’s something you need to remember, better keep that travel pretty close to home. 

You might expect that with its tendency to reach inward, your default network’s activity could make you more creative.  This is only partly true.  University of British Columbia researchers Melissa Ellamil and her colleagues (2012) found that it’s the temporal lobe in the cortex that generates creative ideas. The default network decides whether to like those ideas or not.  Reinforcing Delaney’s findings regarding memory and daydreaming, Japanese researchers Hiraku Takeuchi and collaborators (2010) showed that the people more likely to generate creative ideas in a laboratory task were less able to deactivate their default networks.  Creativity may, then, come at a cost if your goal is to learn and remember new information.

These studies on daydreaming suggest 4 practical ways you can put your brain's default network to best use for you:

1. Tune out your default network when you need to focus. Your best chance to learn something new comes when you deactivate the network. If you feel your inner thoughts are crowding out the new information, take that extra step to turn down their volume.

2. If your daydreams are bothering you, change them. We know from the Mar study that people who daydream about unobtainable relationships feel unhappier and less satisfied. As difficult as it may be, try to fantasize about the relationships you now have or those that you might reasonably be able to start in the near future.

3. Use your daydreams to help, not hurt, your memory. From the Delaney study, we learned that students who daydreamed about faraway places or situations had poorer memories than those whose daydreams stayed closer to their current realities. If you use your daydreams to elaborate on your experiences now, you'll have a better chance of remembering those experiences in the future.

4. Don't stifle your creativity, but don't let it interfere with what you need to know. Creative people seem to be more likely to engage in flights of fancy, as the Takeuchi study showed. Before you let your imagination run rampant, make sure you're paying enough attention to what is going on around you to get that information to stick in your long-term memory.

Your daydreams can mold your memory, your attention, and even your happiness within your relationships.  Daydreams may be the stuff of your brain’s default network, but they can also prove to be the source of your personal fulfillment.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013

Buckner, R. L., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., & Schacter, D. L. (2008). The brain's default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1124, 1-38. doi: 10.1196/annals.1440.011

Delaney, P. F., Sahakyan, L., Kelley, C. M., & Zimmerman, C. A. (2010). Remembering to forget: The amnesic effect of daydreaming. Psychological Science, 21(7), 1036-1042. doi:10.1177/0956797610374739

Ellamil, M., Dobson, C., Beeman, M., & Christoff, K. (2012). Evaluative and generative modes of thought during the creative process. Neuroimage, 59(2), 1783-1794. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.08.008

Mar, R. A., Mason, M. F., & Litvack, A. (2012). How daydreaming relates to life satisfaction, loneliness, and social support: The importance of gender and daydream content. Consciousness And Cognition: An International Journal, 21(1), 401-407. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2011.08.001

Takeuchi, H., Taki, Y., Hashizume, H., Sassa, Y., Nagase, T., Nouchi, R., & Kawashima, R. (2011). Failing to deactivate: The association between brain activity during a working memory task and creativity. Neuroimage, 55(2), 681-687. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.052

Dreams Decoded