Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Daydreaming: Not All Mind Wandering Fuels Creative Thinking

There's a big difference between intentional and unintentional mind wandering.

Harvard University researchers are studying the pros and cons of various types of mind wandering.
Source: pathdoc/Shutterstock

There is growing evidence that allowing your mind to wander, daydream, or "zone out" facilitates creative thinking, problem solving, and "Aha!" moments. However, researchers at Harvard University have identified that not all mind wandering is created equal.

In some circumstances, daydreaming may actually be counterproductive or even dangerous. For example, not paying attention in class during periods in which it's important to focus on learning explicit knowledge could diminish a student's crystallized intelligence and lead to a poor grade. In many professions, spacing out on the job could result in fatalities... Air traffic controllers or surgeons must have unwavering laser-like focus.

Until now, most of the research on mind wandering has operated under the assumption that all mind wandering is unintentional. But researchers at Harvard were curious to pinpoint the differences and underlying causes of intentional vs. unintentional mind wandering. To identify the prevalence of different types of mind wandering, the researchers observed 113 university students as they completed sustained-attention tasks that varied in difficulty.

The March 2016 study, "On the Necessity of Distinguishing Between Unintentional and Intentional Mind Wandering," was published today in Psychological Science.

"Unclamping" Your Prefrontal Cortex Allows Your Cerebral Mind to Wander

I know from personal experience that in order to have an "Aha!" moment, I have to consciously "clamp" down for intensive periods of very focused cerebral thinking. During these periods of laser focus, I refuse to allow my mind to wander until I've wrapped my head around all the facts and figures involved in solving a riddle. Then, I systematically and consciously "unclamp" my prefrontal cortex (usually while jogging) and allow my mind to wander as I subconsciously ruminate about all of the information I've ingested.

Unclamping prevents my mind from overthinking, which allows ideas to incubate and meld into an organic stew. While I'm in a state of intentional mind wandering, part of my brain is subconsciously problem solving, as my conscious mind patiently waits for insights to emerge. For me, the process of clamping and unclamping my prefrontal cortex allows my mind to wander in ways that helps me connect-the-dots of seemingly unrelated ideas and can lead to "Eureka! I've found it.” breakthroughs.

In a recent Psychology Today blog post, "Aha! Aerobic Exercise Facilitates the Free Flow of Thought," I discuss how I consciously use my time running, biking, and swimming to create a state of intentional mind wandering in which I'm actively problem solving, but also spacing out and daydreaming.

In a statement, Paul Seli, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Harvard University and lead author of the new study, said,

"In recent years, there has been an enormous increase in the number of studies examining mind wandering. The general assumption has been that people's experiences of mind wandering exclusively reflect their attention unintentionally drifting away from a task. Based on our everyday experiences, however, it seems that people frequently intentionally mind-wander.

We suspect that when people are completing an easy task, they may be inclined to deliberately disengage from the task and engage in mind wandering. This might be the case because easy tasks tend to be rather boring, or because people realize that they can get away with mind wandering without sacrificing performance.

Conversely, when completing a difficult task, people really need to focus on the task in order to perform well, so if they do mind-wander, their mind wandering should be more likely to occur unintentionally."

Throughout the experiment, participants were prompted to identify their current mental state as being: focused on the task, intentionally mind wandering, or unintentionally mind wandering (e.g., thinking about what to have for dinner or making plans with friends).

Reading about this new study reminded me of a recent email exchange I had with Carola Salvi of Northwestern University about her March 2016 study, "Insightful Solutions Are Correct More Often Than Analytic Solutions." This study found that people who gave their ideas time to incubate—and waited until they had a flash of insight—scored better on a wide range of tests.

Whenever I write a Psychology Today blog post, I like to share my writing with the researchers of the study for feedback. In this case, Salvi opened my eyes to the difference between having a casual "gut instinct" (which might occur during unintentional mind wandering) or having an actual "Aha!" moment, which is probably more likely to occur during types of intentional mind wandering. Salvi explained this phenomenon to me by saying,

"Insight problem solving occurs when, after working on a problem for awhile and maybe feeling stuck, a solution unexpectedly emerges into consciousness in an ‘Aha!’ moment. This happens because our mind restructures, reframes the initial representation of a problem and that allows us to see it under a new light and solve it."

Conclusion: Fine-Tuning Your Mind Wandering Could Lead to "Aha!" Moments

"These results challenge the common view that all mind wandering is unintentional," Paul Seli concluded. "Importantly, this result indicates that intentional and unintentional mind wandering are unique cognitive experiences that sometimes behave differently. In turn, this suggests that researchers ought to distinguish between these two unique subtypes of mind wandering in future work."

Seli and his colleagues are going to continue their research on the potential different types of daydreaming and the underlying causes of unintentional and intentional mind wandering. They're eager to fine-tune ways to help students stay focused during class, but also want to figure out when it's most beneficial to intentionally allow your mind to wander.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete's Way blog posts.

The Athlete's Way ® is a registered trademark of Christopher Bergland.

More from Psychology Today

More from Christopher Bergland

More from Psychology Today