At least the two Northwest Airlines pilots who flew 150 miles past their appointed runway didn't claim "daydreaming" as a distraction. Instead they asserted that they were caught up in doing business on their laptop computers.

Daydreaming is often blamed for such space outs and missed external cues: a shift in a conversation, bread burning in the toaster, or when we're really deep in the middle distance, a road exit. I once "came to" from a daydream and found myself driving over a bridge into another state. Okay, I do live in a tri-state area so I hadn't gone that far, but you get the point.

This is one of the ways in which daydreaming gets such a bad rap. Yet one of the reasons we can get away with daydreaming so frequently and why we can experience its many benefits--creative problem solving, idea generation, conceptualizing--is because the daydreaming mind seems to have a built-in "capacity for interruption," according to researcher and psychologist Dr. Jerome Singer. This mechanism lets us shift from inner to outer worlds with lightning speed as some external event punctures the dream, say a honk of a horn or the desperate pleas of air traffic controllers.

It's as if the brain has made some bargain--the risk of an occasional missed cue (the exit sign) for the extra brain power we get via daydreaming. "It's fascinating that we can pull this off," researcher Malia Mason, PhD, told me when I interviewed her for my book [amazon 1933102691]. "We can manage the external world and daydream at the same time. To do that you have to know what you can get away with. Some part of the brain has to know."

Conversely, the deeper we are in a state of concentration (the pilots working on their laptops) or a state of flow--an artist in the throws of a creation, a scientist in the midst of an experiment, or my husband working on a business proposal--the harder it is to respond reflexively to interruptions. Therefore, it's probably safer to lapse into a daydream while driving than to become heavily focused on a conversation or anything else that makes it hard for us to shift mental gears.

Daydreaming plays another role during the performance of mundane tasks besides letting us investigate multiple goals and ideas. It seems counterintuitive, but daydreaming actually helps keep us awake and reasonably alert. Studies have shown that when subjects have to keep their mind focused on a boring task--say, monitoring a security camera or long-distance driving--they become drowsier faster than when they're allowed to let their minds wander.

You've probably experienced something similar while driving or sitting in on some endless meeting; if you didn't have mental scenarios to engage you, you would have been asleep at the wheel a long time ago. So a little mind wandering is not a bad thing. It's a very human thing--a built-in exit ramp to creativity. While daydreaming, we can explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man has gone before--all while commuting to and from work.

© Amy Fries
Photo: istock.com/PaulKline
For more information, check out [amazon 1933102691].

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