Med thumb daydreaming ralphie

Out to lunch. Scatterbrained. Space cadet. Daydreaming is often associated with laziness or boredom, and an enemy of productivity. But there are actually many benefits to being off in the clouds.

Though you may have been scolded in school for being zoned out, research has shown that daydreaming actually makes you more creative. According to Eugenio M. Rothe, a psychiatrist at Florida International University, “the daydreaming mind may make an association between bits of information that the person had never [thought about] in that particular way…[leading to] solutions to problems that the person had not considered.”

Daydreaming can also facilitate retrieving information in our brain that was previously out of reach or dormant.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences even goes so far as to say daydreaming gives you a “distinct cognitive advantage.” The study found that when we are assigned a specific task, the brain localizes neural activity, but daydreaming “involves the activation of a gigantic default network involving many parts of the brain.” Essentially, daydreaming may allow us to process things more efficiently.

There are other positives as well. Daydreaming may help us explore our inner experiences, support us in making moral decisions, reveal insight into what others are thinking, and imagining future experiences.

What’s the downside?

We’ve all been there. You’re focused on a spreadsheet, trying to crunch the numbers, when your thoughts drift off to your backyard hammock and that feeling of being outdoors, lulled into blissful relaxation. When you snap out of it, you have to reorient yourself to those equations. As well as distracting us from unpleasant tasks, drifting off can cause us to forget what we were doing just before the daydream, especially the more out of context the mind wanders. A negative side to daydreaming is losing focus and concentration. In fact a new study by two Harvard psychologists published in the journal Science found that those who focused on a specific task were usually happier than those who were constantly distracted.

Even when your daydreams are happy ones, they “tend to turn back to things that aren’t so positive,” said health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, who teaches at Stanford University. She uses as an example reminiscing about a romantic Paris honeymoon only to come back to the overpriced hotel or snooty bellhop. This is what brain researchers call “default mode,” a state of contemplating the past to learn from it. It’s an evolutionary thing, learning from our mistakes. As McGonigal puts it, “Evolution doesn’t give a damn about happiness.”

Other research has shown that under certain circumstances, daydreaming can influence depressive symptoms through “enhancing self-focus and ruminative thought.” Depression is a disorder that involves spending a significant amount of time in mental inactivity -- in other words, the time when we daydream. While everyone daydreams throughout the day, when we spend less and less time in the present moment, we can become wistful, anxious and unhappy.

Not surprisingly, our minds tend to wander the least when we’re having sex.

So you’re saying there are upsides and downsides to daydreaming.

Daydreaming isn’t inherently good or bad, but rather it’s all about what you’re thinking and the end goal you hope to achieve. When questioning whether or not your daydreams are healthy, it’s important to differentiate between daydreams that are beneficial and ones that border on compulsive.

Are you actually getting something useful out of your daydreams? Or are you just reliving a moment in time over and over again?

The second daydreaming starts to feel out of control, it’s no longer a profitable tool to help with efficiency or cognition. It then becomes a distraction rather than an asset, and can be an indicator of underlying issues.