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Daydreams Set Us Free, Should We Daydream More?

Daydreaming is a valuable activity that involves sophisticated brain activity.

Key points

  • We let our minds wander at significant cost to our performance on tasks such as reading, sustained attention, and aptitude tests.
  • However, mind wandering plays an important role in autobiographical planning and creative problem-solving.
  • Let your mind wander at appropriate times: daydreaming during a tedious meeting is acceptable; daydreaming while driving is not.
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Daydreaming is more important than we think
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

Dreams play a vital role in emotional processing while we sleep and are therefore important for our well-being. But what about daydreams? What about those times during the day when we let our minds wander and spend a few minutes imagining things that we know are not real? What is happening then? Should I worry about my drifting mind?

Perhaps. There is evidence that mind wandering occurs at a significant cost to our performance on tasks such as reading, sustained attention, and tests of aptitude. Mind-wandering can also negatively impact reading comprehension and model building, reduce our ability to withhold automatised responses in tests and disrupt our performance on assessments of working memory and intelligence. Those are the negatives.

All of these unhelpful consequences must, however, be weighed against recent evidence that mind-wandering can have significant benefits. Chiefly, there is now good reason to believe that mind-wandering plays an important role in autobiographical planning and creative problem-solving, both of which are essential psychological and emotional processes in our inner lives. Both of these activities, it seems, might benefit from some judicious daydreaming.

These findings make a great deal of sense and fit with many people’s experience of mind-wandering in general and daydreaming in particular. Most of us are fully aware that we concentrate less when we are daydreaming, but this is often a price that we are willing to pay.

Letting our attention drift

If I am in a situation where I don’t need to concentrate, I am very happy to let my attention drift. In these circumstances, I don’t mind paying the cost of poor attention and poor retention if I get the pleasure and benefit of daydreaming. I quite enjoy the mildly subversive thrill of focusing my attention elsewhere as my thoughts drift away.

We know that the wandering mind is generally future-oriented. We plan our lives in daydreams. Admittedly, the future that we daydream for ourselves might be optimistic to the point of fantastical, but at least it is a forward-looking plan.

Even better, by releasing us from the pesky constraints of reality, daydreams allow us to think more creatively about the problems of today and the possibilities of tomorrow. This facilitates greater imagination, better problem-solving, and reaching conclusions that our rational minds would never permit if we were concentrating fully. Like dreams at night-time, daydreams set us free.

Brain activity when we daydream

What is happening in our brains when we daydream? To figure this out, one research study looked at the brain scans of 15 volunteers as their minds wandered. The findings showed that, contrary to expectations, numerous brain regions become very active when our minds wander. In fact, our brains are more active when our minds wander than when we are focused on routine tasks. Who would have guessed? My wandering mind is actually very busy.

Up to this point, it was thought that, when our minds wandered, the only part of the brain that was active was its “default network,” which is associated with low-level, routine mental activity. This network is linked with specific brain areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the temporoparietal junction.

Study results, however, revealed that the brain’s “executive network” is also activated as we daydream, involving other brain areas such as the lateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. This network is concerned with complex, high-level problem-solving.

This means that our routine brain networks and our “executive” networks are both busy when we daydream, making our minds paradoxically hyper-active as they drift away from our chosen task.

As a result, our minds are far from idle when we daydream. Quite the opposite: They are fully occupied with important, complicated tasks. Who knew?

This finding greatly increases the value that we should place on daydreaming. We might not fully know what our brains are doing as our minds wander, but we can be assured that they are working away furiously. We might lose focus on the task that we set out to do, but that is simply our brain’s way of telling us that it has more important things to think about: our relationships, our future goals, or maybe just some general reflection.

Should we daydream?

We should let our minds wander at appropriate times: daydreaming during a tedious meeting is perfectly acceptable and even recommended; daydreaming while driving a car is not.

We should create time and space to let our minds wander off every so often and see where they take us.

We entertain unreality to make reality more bearable and, it turns out, to help us work on problems other than the ones we are supposed to be focused on. Daydreams are our brain’s way of telling us that we have more important things to do. We should listen to this message.

References

Christoff K, Gordon AM, Smallwood J, Smith R, Schooler JW. Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2009; 106: 8719-24. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/early/2009/05/11/0900234106.full.pdf

Kelly B. The Science of Happiness: The Six Principles of a Happy Life and the Seven Strategies for Achieving It. Dublin: Gill Books, 2021.

Mooneyham BW, Schooler JW. The costs and benefits of mind-wandering: A review. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne de Psychologie Expérimentale 2013; 67: 11-18.

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