Is daydreaming a bad habit? Some researchers believe that mind wandering is healthy and helpful, uncovering new insight and ideas.
Daydreaming often gets a bad rap for encouraging laziness; however, giving ourselves permission to relax and stare out the window can be a healthy—and even productive—daily habit. Research shows that letting our minds wander helps us create, relax, and think.
What is mind wandering?
Mind wandering harkens back to the buzzwords of the ’60s, such as stream of consciousness—a technique inspiring poets, shamans, and visionaries. More conservatively, we may refer to this state as task-unrelated thought, absentmindedness, or being preoccupied. Mind wandering can also happen when people are depressed or intoxicated.
Scottish academic Jonathan Smallwood runs a blog devoted to the full range of this fascinating topic. He defines mind wandering as “a product of spontaneous, internally generated thought.”
Space out to tune in
Kieran Fox, a psychology researcher in the Christoff laboratory at the University of British Columbia, believes in the benefits of daydreaming—and dreaming while we sleep, too.
“A lot of creative people, both artists and scientists, have credited their dreams and daydreams with inspirations and insights,” Fox says. “You need to let the ideas come in the first place—you need to keep that space open and not judge your daydreams too soon.”
Fox challenges the notion that daydreaming is a waste of time, especially when considering how much time many people spend watching television or listening to the radio. “You’ve got nothing to lose,” he says. “There is the possibility of new insights and new ideas all the time when your mind is freely wandering.”
In today’s fast-paced society, finding the time to stare into space can be challenging. “But nonetheless, daydreaming creeps in constantly,” Fox observes. “During work, while socializing, and even when making love.”
Daydreaming and mental health
Since daydreaming and mind wandering “just won’t go away,” Fox believes, from a biological point of view, these activities must play a crucial function in our mental well-being. A widespread collection of people’s first-hand accounts support the benefits of mind wandering—but scientific proof is still tenuous.
“We are moving toward a rudimentary understanding of these processes,” Fox says. “I think eventually the scientific findings are likely to bear out these first-person testimonials.”
In one study, researchers observed many similarities among people who daydreamed and those who dreamed while sleeping. They noted that whether people are awake or asleep, the dream “is largely audiovisual and emotional, follows loose narratives tinged with fantasy, is strongly related to current concerns, draws on long-term memory, and simulates social interactions.”
A dream journal can be a helpful tool for analyzing the ideas we generate while sleeping. Fox says that his father, a geophysicist and inventor, recorded his nighttime dreams for decades. Fox was inspired to record his own dreams for more than 10 years. He recalls that his father was always scanning his dream journal for useful ideas and insights. “This led him to several technological breakthroughs, and the lesson has stuck with me.”
“We also know that depriving people of dream sleep causes major disturbances in the brain and body,” Fox says, “but is this due to losing the psychological benefits of dreaming, or some physiological disruption? Can we even separate these two?”
Change your thinking patterns
According to Smallwood, mind wandering can be a problematic action. He writes that “ruminating about past failures or incessantly thinking about how things could go wrong are less likely to be helpful, and may in fact exacerbate states of worry or unhappiness.” He goes on to propose that “the content of mind wandering may be important in determining whether it is beneficial to an individual’s well-being.”
Fox agrees with Smallwood, adding that it can be very difficult to change negative thought patterns. “Unfortunately, most of us are caught in habitual, repetitive patterns of thinking—and a lot of this thinking is along negative lines,” Fox says.
“There is some research that mindfulness meditation and hypnosis may be able to overcome these rigid patterns,” he says, “but then the real question becomes—what to change those patterns to?”
Think happy, meditative thoughts
Many years of practising meditation led Fox to consider “how utterly useless and self-deprecating a lot of spontaneous thinking is.” Out of this experience, he was also motivated to ask, “How do our patterns of thinking and daydreaming relate to our well-being, our capacity for creativity, and our mood?”
“Becoming aware of these patterns ought to be able to help us channel our minds into more fruitful paths. This is one of the major premises of meditation,” he says.
Creative people have long believed channelling our minds will bear fruit. Take, for example, Scott Myers, a professional screenwriter for 25 years. On a website devoted to artists, Myers fully supports learning more about daydreaming to help propel the creative process.
“Choosing to decouple from the external world and go into the story is for a writer an act of complete submission,” he writes. “When we engage in mind wandering, we commit an act of faith … that ultimately translates onto the printed page as a novel, short story, poem, or screenplay.”
Fox considers the source of creativity too in his role as a scientist—but also when he sits down at the piano and composes music. “I’m not trying to downplay the critical role of reasoning through ideas,” Fox says, “but it seems to me that the true inspirations arise spontaneously—and how the brain generates such novelty is an enormous mystery I would like to know a lot more about.”
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