Back in our school days, kids would often be caught daydreaming. “Where are you? Please pay attention,” we would be told. Feeling embarrassed, we would quickly turn our attention to our book, only to let our minds wander off again soon after.
Daydreaming, or mind wandering, is defined as the reverie we experience while we’re awake. The Cambridge Dictionary describes it as "the activity of thinking about pleasant things that you would like to do or have happened to you, instead of thinking about what is happening now."
When we daydream, our thoughts are disconnected from the environment and the task at hand because our mind is overwhelmed, tired, or bored. Even as adults, many of us daydream – more than we probably realize. Scientists say that adults spend almost 30% - 50% of their time daydreaming.
Even though it’s an activity that comes so naturally, daydreaming is almost always frowned upon. After all, it’s a waste of our precious time, right? Not quite. Contrary to popular opinion, daydreaming has many benefits.
Let’s look at some of the reasons why mind wandering might be good for you.
1. It helps us focus
Scientists believe that daydreaming can be an essential tool in helping people achieve their goals. Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at NYU, says that envisioning the awaited achievement of a goal pushes us to stay committed and motivated.
Even Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, believed in the power of daydreams. He stated they represent “the human desire to alter the existing and often unsatisfactory or unpleasant world of reality.”
Additionally, research shows that mind wandering is often motivated by our goals. Mind wandering that focuses on future planning allows us to be better prepared. In sports, athletes sometimes try purposeful daydreaming before a game to improve their performance. This method helps them rewire their brains to envision the positive outcome they desire.
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2. It improves your creativity
Studies have demonstrated that daydreaming has a direct connection with improved levels of creativity.
A study published in the American Psychological Association Journal notes that two types of daydreams are beneficial. The authors of the study believe that personally meaningful daydreams and those with fantastical content are both linked with improved brain connectivity.
Psychologists say that, when faced with a complex problem, we should avoid trying to obsess over it. Taking a break will give your mind the space to receive and reveal new information. This is why most of us stumble upon a moment of sudden insight or discovery in the middle of mundane tasks like washing the dishes.
In one study, college students were given two minutes to devise as many uses for everyday items like toothpicks and bricks as they could. The results showed that those who daydreamed instead of continuously focusing on the problem were 41% more productive and creative than the other group.
Daydreaming is an exercise for your mind, says Bianca L. Rodriguez, Ed.M, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Allowing our minds to wander helps create a different perspective and invites creativity.
3. Can help manage anxiety
Having daydreams can relieve the symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is a natural stress response. Letting your mind wander may provide you some much-needed respite from deliberating over anxious thoughts when you’re stressed.
Research shows that when you tune out the outside world and allow your thoughts to flow freely, you enter an alpha wave state where you are calm and not thinking of anything unnecessarily.
Let’s say you just had an argument with a family member and you're really stressed. In such a situation, try and let your mind wander to something completely unrelated but enjoyable. Even if those thoughts are far-fetched, they will help you forget about your current unpleasant situation for some time.
4. It can improve your working memory
Scientists say that people who daydream often have a pretty capable working memory.
A study conducted by scientists from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences asked participants to perform easy tasks that would prompt daydreaming.
When the tasks were over, the researchers checked each participant's working memory capacity by asking them to remember letters while doing math equations. While all participants performed well on the task, the researchers noticed that the ones who had allowed their minds to wander scored higher on the working memory test.
"What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren't very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they're doing," said study author Jonathan Smallwood, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science.
Working memory is the small amount of information that can be stored in the mind and used to complete cognitive tasks. It gives the brain the space to juggle multiple thoughts at the same time. The more working memory a person has, the more mind wandering they can do without forgetting the task at hand, the researchers of the study said.
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5. It can increase performance
Daydreaming can also be used as an effective tool to increase performance. Researchers at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, found that mind wandering helps people improve task performance by boosting brain function and preparing the mind to perform complicated tasks.
Another study measured whether humans will wait for a large delayed reward instead of settling for a smaller immediate reward. The researchers discovered that people whose minds wander more also tend to be more patient. Hence, they are more likely to make better decisions. Experts believe this may be because mind wandering allows us to escape the troubles of real life, which gives us the ability to withstand the frustration of waiting longer for a reward.
So, try and disengage from your devices for a few minutes every day, and just sit still. Close your eyes and let your mind wander. You might feel restless initially, but with practice, you will start getting better and be more relaxed with your wandering thoughts. Make sure those thoughts are both pleasant and meaningful.
And one final note - while daydreaming undoubtedly has many benefits, it’s equally important to understand that you shouldn’t indulge in it when you’re doing anything that requires your complete, undivided attention, such as driving, cooking, reading, or using heavy machinery.
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