Who says daydreaming is a waste of time? New research says: No by Suf Alkhaldi

Be productive by daydreaming- Image courtesy of iconmac at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Be productive by daydreaming- Image courtesy of iconmac at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I used to think that daydreaming is the ultimate waste of time. During graduate school, I found that very few people think while they are sitting at their desks.  I was one of these people who spent most of my time thinking and drifting away in different directions. For a while, I thought I might be suffering from ADHD. Finally, new research has come forward that analyzes daydreaming. Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, adjunct associate professor of psychology at New York University, says, “As much as 50% of daily cognition [mental thinking] is spent on spontaneous cognition.” The mind escapes its reality and travels to something unrelated to what you are doing. These mind travels are most likely triggered by words engraved somewhere in our memory that serve as anchors. Kaufman confirms that mind wandering is a path of creative thinking or a path to find creative solutions. When the mind wanders, it usually creates space for reflection, increasing your possibility to have more insight on a problem. Daydreaming is defined as a state of mind where thoughts that are experienced by an individual are unconnected to what is going on in the environment around them. Although this activity might be wasteful and problematic, it is usually quite useful because most people spend this time daydreaming about what they need to do in the future to solve a problem. A team of researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the part of the brain where daydreaming takes place. It was found that daydreaming is located in the default brain network region of the brain, which stays active when we relax and is not engaged in concentrated tasks. The default network is located in the medial frontal region of the brain (the region which controls problem solving) and the parietal region of the brain (the region which controls sensory information). This relationship might explain the interaction between daydreaming and problem solving and how this might increase your creativity. Not surprisingly, brain damage in that location presents itself as “mental emptiness” and absence of spontaneous speech and thoughts.

Daydreaming is must habit
Daydreaming is must habit – Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The key to using your daydreaming and preventing thoughts about mundane tasks from encroaching is to help your mind to go always to “one room,” preferably a very peaceful and beautiful place where wandering is encouraged. Google, Inc. has capitalized on this human behavior and instituted a policy of allowing their employees to use 20% of their time on projects of their choosing (mind wandering projects). It turned out that many projects adopted by Google are a result of this   initiative. For example, Gmail and Picasso, in addition to other applications in the Google lab projects, were products of the Google 20% project.

A researcher has measured the impact of daydreaming by designing an experiment. A group of college students were given a brick and were asked to list the possible uses of it in different functions. After doing this task for 10 minutes, participants were divided into four groups.

  • Group 1 was given a 10 minute break.
  • Group 2 was given a 10 minute working memory task.
  • Group 3 was given an “easy choice reaction”(daydreaming).
  • Group 4 was moved to the next phase of the experiment.

It was found that group 3 performed much better on the creativity problems than the rest of the group, suggesting daydreamers generated more creative solutions to the old problems, signifying that disengaging from your current environment might allow you to pursue a line of thought that is more creative. [1]

To read more about daydreaming, you need to check this website which has many scientific studies proving the use of daydreaming. Daydreaming has some connection with negative or unhappy moods. More evidence has appeared lately that daydreaming is frequent in individuals with chronic depression although it is not clear if this is causation or correlation. As much as I love to daydream, sometimes I need to focus on certain tasks to complete my work. Having said that, I do schedule certain days when I decrease the amount of work to create some breathing time for my mind to wander. These wander days have turned out to be a great source for many of my creative ideas and for seeking answers to some questions placed in the back of my mind. I do get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction relaxing my mind and body on that day. It took me a long time to condition myself to enjoy this gift rather than feeling guilty for not being productive.

This blog is published every week on Saturday before 10:00 pm. US Eastern time. Thank you for reading my blog. I would love to hear from you.


[1] Baird, J. Smallwood, M. D. Mrazek, J. W. Y. Kam, M. S. Franklin, and J. W. Schooler, “Inspired by distraction: mind wandering facilitates creative incubation.,” Psychol. Sci., vol. 23, no. 10, pp. 1117–22, Oct. 2012.

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