Daydreaming is something we’ve all indulged in at some point. Allowing your mind to drift away to thoughts of happier times and places, or fantasizing about what “could be” is the perfect antidote to whatever challenges and worries life has tossed your way. Yet, there are plenty of times you may have been told to “snap out of your daydream” (or perhaps even doled out this advice yourself). And that begs the question ‒ is daydreaming good or bad for you?
What Is Daydreaming?
Dreaming and daydreaming are both regular activities that are part of our overall cognitive processes. We actually daydream for as much as a third to even half of our entire waking hours. The spontaneous state where there is no stimulus, task, or response while a person is awake is daydreaming.1 This seemingly unproductive time is what has hackles raised and makes people question whether daydreaming is of any benefit at all.
The truth is, when you’re daydreaming, your brain doesn’t actually shut down. As Jerome L. Singer, emeritus psychology professor at Yale and long-time researcher on the subject, puts it, it is like tuning in to see “your own mental videos” ‒ these can be both “positive-constructive” (happy thoughts) and “dysphoric” thoughts of failure.2
Daydreaming or mind wandering brings some immediate benefits ‒ like helping you to relax, something similar to what you’d experience after a session of meditation. But that’s not all.
- Researchers have found that a mind that “wanders” more, as in the state of a daydream, tends to correlate with a high degree of working memory. In effect, someone who daydreams more could have the ability to better recall and retain information received in the face of distractions or interruptions.3
- A separate article postulates that daydreaming aids “attention cycling,” which enables someone to move between various streams of information (distractions), as they continue working on their primary task.4 Studies by Singer as well as others after him have also alluded to how the break in a habitual style of learning can help enhance learning, giving the learner short breaks (when they daydream) interspersed with learning, instead of a single massed one.
- Another study found that daydreaming may actually help individuals to perform mundane tasks while maintaining optimal levels of alertness or arousal.5 The researchers also found that it could help a person coherently connect experiences both past and future, besides the current moment. They also hinted that the mind may wander simply because it can.
- The web of neurons in the body that is responsible for creating a person’s sense of self, now called the “default network” in scientific circles, relies on daydreaming to help with how you see yourself in the context of the world outside and how that relates to your own “inner life”.6
- Daydreaming of the positive-constructive kind is found to help with future planning as well as with boosting creativity, especially when it comes to problem solving or “creative incubation”.7
- Psychologists use daydreaming as a tool to help their patients with conflict management. A technique of visualization that hinges on organized daydreaming is employed to help clients work through issues or avoid conflict by going over an altercation and imagining a response and outcome after the fact, without actually resorting to a knee-jerk response at the time.
- Daydreaming also helps people deal with their relationships and remember the people they love in their absence, making them think fondly of them and strengthening their relationship in the process.8
Risks Of Excessive Daydreaming
Volitional daydreaming is one that you can control and is not unintentional. Some are better at it than others. Like all good things, daydreaming can be counterproductive if it gets out of control. As in the instance of one woman referenced in an article in Scientific American, sometimes the lines between fantasy and reality can start to blur. And that’s when daydreaming can be dangerous. When it starts to become an obsession and something a person chooses to actively engage in over other activities or work, you know you are in trouble and might need professional help.9
One study by Harvard University’s Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert says that there is an emotional price to pay for the cognitive advancement associated with daydreaming or mind wandering. The study they undertook on 2,250 volunteers via a mobile app revealed that mind wandering was, in general, actually resulting in the unhappiness of the respondents.10
Dwelling on problems and negative thoughts in their daydreams could also influence a person negatively. This maladaptive (excessive) daydreaming is actually an early warning of depression.11
The key to healthy daydreaming is not unlike any lifestyle choice. Too much of what’s good for you can be bad too. Most of us daydream or let our minds wander for a reasonable amount of time, and that’s fine. If you begin to feel overly dependent on your daydreams or find yourself constantly seeking the escape from reality that daydreams offer, you might want to start to pay attention.
|↑1||Science of Daydreaming, Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal Of Science|
|↑2||McMillan, Rebecca L., Scott Barry Kaufman, and Jerome L. Singer. “Ode to positive constructive daydreaming.” Front. Psychol 4, no. 626 (2013): 10-3389.|
|↑3||Levinson, Daniel B., Jonathan Smallwood, and Richard J. Davidson. “The persistence of thought evidence for a role of working memory in the maintenance of task-unrelated thinking.” Psychological Science 23, no. 4 (2012): 375-380.|
|↑4, ↑7||Schooler J. W., Smallwood J., Christoff K., Handy T. C., Reichle E. D., Sayette M. A. (2011). Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling, and the wandering mind. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15 319–326|
|↑5||M. F. Mason et al. Wandering minds: the default network and stimulus-independent thought. Science. 315, 393-395 (2007)|
|↑6, ↑9||Living in an Imaginary World, Scientific American|
|↑8||Imagined Interactions, Imagery, and Mindfulness/Mindlessness James M. Honeycutt|
|↑10||Bradt, Steve. “Wandering mind not a happy mind.” Harvard Gazette 11 (2010).|
|↑11||Marchetti, Igor, Eowyn Van de Putte, and Ernst HW Koster. “Self-generated thoughts and depression: From daydreaming to depressive symptoms.” Front Hum Neurosci (2014).|