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Christopher Nolan got his idea for the thriller film Inception from one of his own lucid dreams. It’s a brilliant mind-bending story. Richard Linklater got a similar inspiration from his lucid dreams for Waking Life

Some of the most successful innovators in the arts, sciences, and entrepreneurship have been not just adept dreamers but also artful daydreamers. Andrew Stanton got the inspiration for the Pixar robot star WALL-E's face while at a baseball game, binoculars in hand. Inventor Arthur Fry was singing in the church choir when he figured out a marketable application for a special adhesive to paper — an inspired idea that birthed the Post-It note.    

Daydreaming. Psychologist Jerome L. Singer pioneered the study of daydreaming in the 1960s and early 1970s (The Inner World of Daydreaming), but the subject was largely ignored until recently. I’ve pursued deliberate daydreaming for a decade in my endeavor to track wonder, and since approximately 2009 a group of psychologists and neuroscientists also increasingly have studied how to tap the new talent of deliberate daydreaming.

Here's the challenge: It turns out that the same brain region stimulated during daydreaming and mind-wandering also lights up when we're ruminating and worrying. The trick for most of us, though, is how to train our minds to wander without getting lost in fret, anxiety, or utter indolence. 

The payoff to learning to daydreaming deliberately, though, could be worth the effort.

The Costs of Too Much Focus, Focus, Focus

In our app-happy, metric-hungry world, we’re given bountiful tools to stay on track, get things done, measure every walking step, and optimize every waking minute. These tools can indeed help us focus and concentrate. Whether it's FocusWriter, SelfControl (which I'm using as a finish this article), or Focus, they can help the floundering person get things done. In this distracting digital world, they can help us build the top-down focus required for developing, assessing, and executing big projects. But at what cost? 

But hyper-focus at all costs can take its toll.

Hyper-focus strategically leads to selective attention, which can hinder your ability to generate fresh solutions and ideas. Selective attention means your mind omits stray thoughts and outside stimuli. Such top-down focus helps you execute and complete tasks yet by its very nature it’s not the frame of mind for generating novel, useful, innovative solutions to perplexing problems. In fact, one study published in Neuropsychologia (2015) correlates the inability to filter out external distractions with the ability to generate novel solutions and execute them.

Hyper-focus also can harm well-being and a sense of meaning.

I’ve researched for over a decade the benefits of daydreaming, wandering, wondering, and being indolent on purpose. Yet for a few years — as my family grew and as my business grew — I noticed something. It was as if the Daydreaming Room in my mind got divided into a nursery and an office. I got fidgety. Irritable. A few years ago I “moved some furniture” around, so to speak, to make room again for more daydreaming, more deliberate daydreaming. And I’ve been helping others do so, too. 

The results? I produced more writing, published another collection of poetry, developed more programs. Perhaps more importantly I became more content and less reactive. I felt more on-purpose.

Brain scans might show why. When in hyper-focus, a network of the brain called the default network mode (DNM) is not highly stimulated. Part of that network includes the anterior medial prefrontal cortex. The anterior medial prefrontal cortex awakens when we’re engaged in recounting memories and making meaning both from ideas as well as from our surroundings. It’s stimulated when we’re making meaningful decisions. 

Simply put, a core part of our meaning-making is to connect our past experiences and ideas with our future visions. Hyper-focus shuts down those frames of mind to get things done. Now. 

Artless daydreaming is not healthy.

Yet, here's the paradox. The antidote to hyper-focus is daydreaming. Given to its own devices, the idle mind might in fact brood and brew up devilish thoughts that aren't helping our happiness. A study by Matthew Killngsworth and Daniel Gilbert revealed the correlation between a wandering mind and lack of happiness.

When we’re distracted or ruminating randomly, that same neuronal network — the default network mode — is stimulated. Psychologists call it the “default” network in part because it’s stimulated mostly when we are not giving much deliberate or "executive" attention to our thought patterns.

If our frame of mind is in rumination or random personal daydreaming, our thoughts can anchor on the following modes of “default” story-making:

  • Regrets of the past — Why did I say that? What does she think of me?
  • Worries of the future
  • Negative self-talk

It’s as if the mind’s carriage driver has let go of the reins, and the horses are running the show. You’re trapped inside the carriage and don’t even realize it most of the time. If you’re human, you’ve caught yourself trapped in these thought loops. If you lack cognitive tools to trip these thought loops, such ruminating or artless daydreaming can fuel fret, anxiety, depression, or a general lack of well-being.

One way “out” of those thought loops has been to build our reserves of focus, concentration, and mindfulness.

But that brings us back to the Cost of Too Much Focus, Focus, Focus.

The Daydreaming Paradox

Here’s the Daydreaming Paradox: The frames of mind required to generate novel, useful, innovative ideas and solutions might be more in line with daydreaming than with executive focus:

  • Random combinations of existing ideas
  • Fresh pattern-making of existing ideas
  • Fresh metaphor-making and analogy-making
  • ‘Weird’ and quirky ideas

Some studies demonstrate that adults with attention deficit disorder perform exceptionally high generating novel ideas and in bringing creativity to their everyday lives. 

Here is some research I cited in the article "Less Labor Works Better":

Imagine this scenario: A worker primes her mind with a demanding problem. She takes a break but engages herself with an undemanding and non-related task.  In a 2012 study published in Psychological Science, undergraduates aged 19-32 who took such a break were 41% more successful at ensuing tasks than the group that was given a demanding task. They also out-performed the group given no break. They were not necessarily more successful at generating ideas but at working through existing problems.

Sophie Ellwood and her team at the University of Sydney, Australia, found in 2009 that a group given an unrelated task actually generated more novel ideas than those groups not given breaks.

And music-turned-cognitive psychologist at McGill University Daniel Levitin has become an advocate for more daydreaming as his research with professor of neuroscience Vinod Menon demonstrates the value of switching between attentional focus and daydream mode.

People prompted to let their minds wander on non-task related activities also have generated more novel uses for ordinary objects (How many uses can you come up for a brick?), and Chinese college students who were prompted similarly to let their minds wander amidst a sustained focus activity were able to detect a hidden pattern within the activity (i.e., fresh pattern-making). 

However, the science is inconclusive of course. 

One challenge is that most people aren’t trained to daydream on purpose. In a follow-up article, I'll share some practical ways to experiment with deliberate daydreaming at work.

Meanwhile, take a break, step away from your desk, and wonder about something completely unrelated to a work task. Whether you get a solution or not, you just might feel a little relief and a little more meaning in the scheme of things.

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You are reading

Tracking Wonder

Impostor's Syndrome and the Afflictions of the Accomplished

Remedies for the fear of being "found out."

The Art of Deliberate Daydreaming

Train your mind to generate fresh and innovative ideas.

The Science of the Daydreaming Paradox for Innovation

The unfocused frame of mind required to generate unexpected solutions.