Dreams of Glory
How is it that an activity considered a lapse in attention can bring about benefits believed to result only from the strict exercise of cognitive control? Let's hear it for daydreaming!
By March 11, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
As a young kid, I was asked by a psychologist, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Without skipping a beat, I replied, "I have this reoccurring dream of one day being a psychologist and giving lots of talks."
Instead of putting me on the lecture circuit, the psychologist told my parents I had delusions of grandeur, and I was shipped off to special education.
By age 3, I had had 21 ear infections, which developed into an auditory learning disability that made it very difficult for me to process speech in real time. I always felt a step or two behind the rest of the kids in the classroom. As a result, I retreated into my own inner world.
I would come home and write stories about time travel, imagine soap opera plotlines, and visualize scenarios about a future in which I was a successful psychologist. These early daydreams offered me a much-needed escape from the realities at school, where I was bullied by students and accorded low expectations from teachers. But no one had access to my most private mind, full of plans for my future and dreams of a different world. To students and teachers alike, however, my mental retreat from school provided only further evidence of my learning disability.
These early experiences made me recognize the power of daydreaming, the capacity to overcome the constraints of the present and travel to distant places and epochs all in the mind—our self-generated inner stream of images, memories, fantasies, and interior monologues. They arise on their own, not from perception. William James, the founder of American psychology, once quipped when accused of being absent-minded that he was really present-minded to his own thoughts.
Unfortunately, history hasn't been so kind to daydreaming. Freud believed daydreamers were infantile and neurotic. In the 1960s, psychology textbooks warned teachers that students who daydreamed were headed for psychosis. Even today, there is a disproportionate focus among scientists on the costs of daydreaming. In a recent study, two prominent psychologists proclaimed that "a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."
More than 50 years ago, pioneering research led by Yale's Jerome L. Singer established that daydreaming is widespread and a normal aspect of human experience. Singer found that a major swath of society consists of "happy daydreamers"—people who enjoy vivid imagery and fantasy. They use daydreaming for plotting out their future. These daydreamers "simply value and enjoy their private experiences, are willing to risk wasting a certain amount of time on them, but also can apparently use them for effective planning and for self-amusement during periods of monotonous task activity or boredom," Singer reported. He called this "positive-constructive daydreaming."
The classic findings are, however, often ignored, and daydreaming is dismissed as a useless mental activity by parents, teachers, managers, and cognitive scientists alike. From an evolutionary perspective, their view makes no sense. Why would roughly half of our waking hours be spent in an activity that could potentially compromise survival, if not for some purpose?
From Instagram to Xboxes, board meetings to classroom lectures, we live in an age when the external environment makes compelling and competing demands for our attention. Rarely are people given the time to reflect, imagine, or daydream. As Singer noted "Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment."
Yet by rejiggering the balance of attention to accommodate more self-generated thought, we may actually get far closer to realizing the dreams we most want for ourselves. The human capacity for mental time travel, it turns out, gives us enormous possibilities for realizing our deepest desires and strivings.
Over the past decade, scientists have begun taking a second look at daydreaming and have discovered surprising benefits to letting go of the present moment. What's becoming clear is that daydreaming—a mental activity historically viewed merely as a lapse in attention—can bring about the very outcomes that cognitive scientists have long thought to be the main province of perception and cognitive control. Studies now show that the cost of short-shrifting our inner lives is high: We ignore our daydreams to the detriment of optimal learning, creativity, and well-being.
Different Dreams, Different Lives
People differ widely in the content of their daydreams. In his groundbreaking work, Singer identified three main styles of daydreaming, each associated with a distinct personality profile. The first style, poor attention control, is characterized by easy distractibility and difficulty concentrating on either the external environment or an ongoing train of thought. People with this style do not report elaborate daydreams and score low in conscientiousness.
A second style of daydreaming—guilty-dysphoric daydreaming—features unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, guilt, fear of failure, and obsessive, hostile, and aggressive fantasies about others. Such daydreamers are highly neurotic.
And then there is positive-constructive daydreaming, associated with openness to experience and reflecting a drive to explore ideas, imagination, feelings, and sensations. Openness to experience is linked to many indicators of psychological health, including happiness, positive emotions, and high quality of life.
The content of daydreams plays a big but hidden role in emotional well-being. People who report the least negative daydreams experience the lowest levels of negative emotions and depression.
Besides relieving boredom by providing an unlimited source of internally generated entertainment, daydreaming offers a huge arena for realizing our own potential.
In a recent study, daydreaming participants were intermittently interrupted and asked to record their thoughts. The researchers found that a significant portion of the participants' mind-wandering episodes involved thoughts about the future. What's more, those who thought the most about the future had the highest levels of attentional control—they were best able to maintain their daydreams.
The researchers, led by Jonathan Schooler at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concluded that most people have a "prospective bias"—when given time for self-reflection, their daydreams are oriented toward the future and are related to the pursuit of long-term goals. The prospective bias appears to be universal. It has been found cross-culturally, including in Europe, the U.S., China, and Japan.
Further, the researchers believe that the prospective bias serves the function of "autobiographical planning"—the setting and anticipation of personally relevant future goals and mental simulation of possible future scenarios, including the emotional reactions of others and ourselves in response to the imagined events.
Their findings corroborate earlier research by psychologist Eric Klinger showing that people's daydreams and night dreams both reflect current concerns—whether thoughts of unfulfilled intentions (asking that guy out on a date, completing that graduate school application) or long-standing unresolved desires, ranging from sexual and social strivings to altruistic or vengeful urges. In other words, daydreams reflect the full kaleidoscope of human motivations. (See "Dream Scenes" below)
As a key feature of daydreaming, such autobiographical planning can be beneficial in the classroom. In one study, psychologists developed a nine-week after-school program in which students were given the time to imagine the academic futures they desired and to practice the skills required to realize them.
By the end of the school year, the daydreaming students reported a greater connection to their school, a greater concern about doing well in school, more strategies for actually realizing their dreams, and better attendance. What's more, they were better able to balance their positive expectations against feared possible outcomes. There was also a significant reduction in behavioral problems among the boys. In other words, daydreaming helped students achieve the very things educators assume it hinders.
Imagining future selves pays dividends long after school ends. In one of the longest and most comprehensive studies of creative achievement ever conducted, psychologist E. Paul Torrance followed a group of elementary school children for more than 30 years. He collected a wide variety of indicators of creative and scholastic promise. Strikingly, he found that the best predictor of lifelong personal and publicly recognized creative achievement—even better than academic indicators such as school grades and IQ scores—was the extent to which children had a clear future-focused image of themselves.
Meaning and Identity
Daydreaming helps us consolidate memories and synthesize disparate ideas and plans, yielding a greater sense of identity and personal meaning.
Healthy social and emotional functioning and the ability to make meaning of life experiences rely on "constructive internal reflection," observes Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a psychologist at the University of Southern California. Feeling compassion or inspiration—and spring-boarding from these emotions to construct personal meaning—involves making connections between our outer social world and our inner mental life.
In one study, Immordino-Yang asked students how a series of stories involving the suffering of others made them feel. The more students paused reflectively before answering, the more cognitively abstract, complex, and compassionate their answers, and the more students made connections to their own lives.
Yet contemporary Western culture often emphasizes action and appearance-oriented values over compassion and moral elevation. We admire evident skill, whether a dazzling basketball dunk or a masterful violin performance, and flinch at another's twisted ankle. But to become deeply inspired by another person, or to passionately connect with the plight of another, we need to do more than react to what's in front of us. It requires the mental high-wire act of projecting ourselves into the inner emotional life of that person. "You have to simulate how it must feel to be that person and how they have acted cumulatively over time in order to infer their current mental state," Immordino-Yang explains.
Social media and entertainment, even rote classroom demands, could thwart the imagination process by robbing children of opportunities to reflect and build personal meaning. Such activities focus mental resources on the concrete, physical, and immediate social world, fostering a more superficial self.
What's more, daydreaming can enhance self-control and creativity. In a study led by York University psychologist Jonathan Smallwood, participants were asked to choose between a small but immediate monetary reward and a larger, but later, one. Subjects had to perform a simple task and a more complex working-memory task requiring them to keep multiple pieces of information in mind at the same time. The more people daydreamed during the simple task, the greater their resistance to the immediate temptation; they held out for a larger reward in the future.
Getting the chance to mind-wander under non-taxing circumstances allowed the participants to make more constructive choices about their life. "Engaging in task-unrelated thought when the environment is not challenging," say the researchers, "is a signature of individuals who make patient choices regarding their future."
In what may be the best-known study of the importance of self-control, psychologist Walter Mischel and colleagues found that hungry 3- to 5-year-olds who were able to distract themselves from a delectable treat beckoning them from a table right in front of them not only received a later reward, but performed better academically and socially in adulthood than the children who immediately stuffed their faces.
"Self-control" and "grit" are today's buzzwords in education. There's no question that they are important for learning and achievement. But educators underappreciate how much daydreams of a more enticing future can fuel grit by increasing our ability to inhibit more fleeting, momentary desires.
Turning attention away from the external world can also allow us to tap into our wellsprings of creativity. Many highly creative writers, artists, and scientists were major daydreamers as children. The long list of highly accomplished daydreamers includes Einstein, Newton, the Brontë family, W. H. Auden, and C. S. Lewis.
Some of the most creative ideas of all time leaped out of a daydream. A number of studies show that our best creative ideas don't emerge when we are focused intensely on a goal. Instead, they arise in those moments when our mind has wandered away from the task at hand to other worlds and possibilities. The Aha! moment typically arises when we make an unexpected connection between offline musings and a problem we've been working on.
In another recent study, Santa Barbara researchers measured creative cognition by asking participants to generate unusual uses for a common object (such as a brick). Then the participants were assigned a task of some kind. Those given an undemanding task were able to imagine many more possible uses for the objects than participants who engaged in a demanding task, had quiet rest, or had no break at all. In fact, those who had the greatest opportunity for daydreaming showed a 40 percent bounce in creativity!
When viewed solely through the lens of external demands—paying attention in class, solving abstract puzzles on an IQ test—the benefits of daydreaming are easily missed. The rewards are far more apparent when viewed in the context of personally meaningful aspirations.
As my colleague Rebecca McMillan and I observed in a recent review of daydreaming research, "Having to reread a line of text three times because attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift allows us to access a key insight, a precious memory, or make sense of a troubling event." Likewise, "arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school."
Sure, daydreaming can interfere with the demands of the moment. You probably shouldn't fantasize about that cute girl sitting next to you while taking the SAT. The inability to control inner chatter can lead to unhappiness and depression, and can cause a decline in vigilance, reading comprehension, and short-term memory.
But most of our lives are not consumed by attention-demanding tasks, and most of our personal goals extend well beyond the immediate moment. Running on the treadmill, eating breakfast, getting stuck in a traffic jam, or taking a shower— none tax expensive cognitive resources. In fact, the benefits of daydreaming are most potent when the external environment is undemanding, and our minds are free to roam our rich internal landscape of emotions, images, and fantasies, and to consider our more distant aspirations and plot our paths toward them. "Not all minds that wander are lost," Jonathan Smallwood declares.
A Channel for Dreaming
Human cognition does not emerge from a single brain region but depends on a team effort involving multiple brain networks. Attending to the external environment and attending to the internal environment rely on separate mental machinery. The external attention network— which consists mainly of communication between the frontal eye field and the superior parietal lobe—helps us focus on what actually exists in the world, what's out there.
In contrast, the generation of inner experience relies on collaboration between the medial prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the precuneus—the so-called default mode network. Their interaction covers a lot of mental territory, including recalling autobiographical memories and semantic information (the president's birthday, for example), thinking about or planning the future, imagining new events, inferring the mental states of others, reasoning about moral dilemmas, reading fiction, self-reflecting, and appraising social and emotional information. However, the more we prioritize the external environment, the more we restrict engagement of the default mode network and the mental functions in its domain.
Suppression of the default mode network is essential for learning; it allows us to pay attention to what's going on around us and take in new information. But consistent underutilization of the default mode network may also have detrimental consequences. As Immordino-Yang suggests, it could hinder compassion and the meaning-making essential for developing and maintaining an understanding of oneself in the world.
That's where the executive attention network comes into play. Consisting primarily of communication between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the inferior parietal lobe, it is dedicated to the control and inhibition of attention. Traditionally, cognitive scientists have emphasized the role of the executive network in serving our more immediate goals.
Far less recognized, however, is the role the executive attention network plays in blocking out the external environment, allowing us to focus our limited attentional capacities on more personal, longer-term goals. Recent research suggests that the default and executive attention networks sometimes form a dynamic duo, collaborating whenever we perform a task that requires extended evaluation of internal information, from future planning to keeping track of social information to appraising creative ideas.
Traditional theories of intelligence do not recognize this joint activity. They emphasize cognitive control and on-the-spot problem-solving as the hallmarks of intellect-ual functioning. IQ tests heavily recruit the executive attention network. But it comprises only one bandwidth of intelligence, one focused on immediate, impersonal matters. The mental actions of the default mode network—involving personal memories, dreams, goals, and aspirations—are not given full play.
Here's the rub: Often behavior that is viewed as unintelligent through a lens focused on short-term impersonal goals is, in fact, brilliant when judged more holistically in the long term. There are different ways of being smart.
When people are not given the opportunity to draw on the operations of the default mode network, assessments of intelligence neglect as much as half of their mental life. Since IQ test sessions typically last only a few hours, the ability to stay on task over longer periods of time, and eventually to accomplish stated goals, can be grossly underestimated.
As a psychologist who studies human intelligence, I contend that we need a broadened conceptualization of intelligence, one that recognizes that each of us reflects a dynamic interplay of cognitive, emotional, motivational, and personality processes that change and develop over time. To recognize what a person is capable of achieving intellectually and creatively requires engaging that person in a meaningful activity and allowing time for deep reflection and cultivation of expertise in a valued domain. In other words, people need the opportunity to draw on the many functions of both the executive attention and the default mode networks.
The executive attention network serves our personal aspirations. It helps keep us on task as we pursue them over the long haul. But failing to recognize the collaboration of the executive attention network and the default mode network is like assessing beauty by viewing only a snapshot of the body: You get a partial picture of someone's attractiveness, one that misses the beauty of the whole person.
The Mindfulness Paradox
Those people whose daydreams are most positive and most specific also score high in mindfulness, a purposeful, nonjudgmental mode of awareness. But how can both mindfulness, which emphasizes awareness of the present, and daydreaming, which is all about letting go of the present, promote health and well-being?
Mindfulness helps train a number of executive attention functions, including attentional control, cognitive inhibition, mental flexibility, and emotional regulation. All are crucial for allowing us to maintain focus on the external environment and ignore inner chatter as situations demand.
The same skills contribute to positive constructive daydreaming. They enable us to insulate ourselves from the external world and sustain vivid, structured daydreams with immense personal value. They help us screen out negative, past-oriented, repetitive daydreams that undermine well-being. As psychologist Klinger says, they help keep your life's agenda in front of you.
The greatest benefit of mindfulness isn't harnessing one mode of thought over another. Mindfulness fosters the ability to switch between different modes of mental activity—that is, it confers flexibility of attention. We can choose to uncouple attention from the outside world to pursue an inner stream of thought that may have a personal payoff, whether it's achieving a new insight or projecting oneself forward in time to success.
At the end of the day, these are the mental activities that make each of us unique and give our lives purpose and meaning. It is only through daydreaming that we can go beyond what is to what could be.
No, sex doesn't figure much at all into daydreams—driving content for a mere 5 percent of dreamers. Relationships, on the other hand, are a consistently significant theme, especially the rehearsal of scenarios of upcoming social events, whether previewing party repartee or a job interview.
Listening to your daydreams can provide valuable information about yourself and your deepest desires, and can also give you more control over your emotions and actions. Longtime daydreaming researcher Eric Klinger of the University of Minnesota has found that the content of daydreams, because they are intensely personal, varies tremendously from person to person. Still, he says, there are two common themes, such as the conquering hero and the suffering martyr.
The conquering hero plotline features a daydreamer who has achieved success or power, such as an NBA basketball player or pop singer, or who has conquered a personal fear, such as public speaking or asking strangers out on a date. Usually these dreams have a positive outcome, such as a cheering audience or a receptive response to a social invitation. Klinger believes that such fantasies reflect a need for control and for overcoming life's petty frustrations. They tend to be more common among men, he says, drawing on anecdotal evidence.
The daydreams of suffering martyrs involve feeling misunderstood or underappreciated. These daydreamers imagine scenarios in which friends or coworkers regret their denigrating actions, and eventually acknowledge the person's positive skills or character. This could range from a boss apologizing for undervaluing performance, to a former lover begging for another chance, to the "popular" crowd at school asking for forgiveness for excluding the daydreamer from their social circle.