Ain’t imagination grand? One minute you’re sitting in your cubicle, drooling into your sad desk lunch. With just a little synaptic magic, you’re in Bali eating dragon rolls off Justin Bieber’s abs.
Okay, maybe that’s not everyone's escape. But while it’s often seen as a weakness and more evidence of our waning attention spans, a little mind-wandering not only makes the soul-smothering moments in life a bit more bearable, but is also important for flexing our creative and critical thinking skills. In fact, daydreaming is essential for a healthier, more productive mind.
Jerome L. Singer, a clinical psychologist known as the “father of daydreaming,” spent the majority of his life investigating mind wandering, evaluating theories from psychologists far and wide as well as such heady thinkers as Lewis Caroll and T.S. Elliott before conducting numerous experiments observing the use of play and imagination in children. He wrote the first book on the subject of spacing out, 1975’s “The Inner World of Day Dreaming” and his findings insist that mind wandering is more or less a very good thing.
In an interview featured in American Journal of Play, Singer mentioned how daydreaming allows people to handle a time-consuming task in a more patient manner.
“(My) work showed that adults with test scores suggesting a fairly rich fantasy life were better able to control their movements and compulsive behaviors compared to others lacking evidence of such imagination,” he said. “For example, a person with a rich fantasy life could write a phrase extremely slowly or sit quietly in a room without restlessness while waiting in an interview.”
Writing phrases slowly and sitting in rooms might not seem like the most essential skills, but think about the ability to work on a project or task over a long period of time. It requires a certain patience and allowance for creativity and incubation. Such dexterities may stem from mind wandering.
Frontiers in Psychology reviewed the original daydreaming research conducted by Singer. In the article, writer Rebecca McMillan and cognitive psychologist Scott Kaufman speak of how daydreaming helps with productivity and coming up with creative ideas. Allowing yourself to daydream, they assert, enhances learning by providing breaks from other tasks, which leads to higher quality and more comprehensive results. Just as we often need to get up, raid the fridge and reorganize our entire closets before we can get work done, our brains need to escape for a bit and recharge. Daydreaming provides this escape.
So, what is actually happening inside your brain while you daydream? In an article from The Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, clinical hypnotherapist John McGrail reviews the science behind spacing out. As with all neurological topics, the material is dense and quite complicated, but the basic gist is that there’s an interconnected set of brain regions referred to as the “default network.” This sub cranial superhighway, which connects portions of the limbic system, frontal cortex and other areas of the brain that control sensory experiences, is considered to be responsible for mind-wandering. As external stimuli decrease, the activity in the default network increases. So, your brain is actually working hard.
A study from PNAS referenced in the article states “mind wandering may be part of a larger class of mental phenomena that enable executive processes to occur without diminishing the potential contribution of the default network for creative thought and mental simulation.” It goes on to say that while spacing out gets in the way of our immediate goals, it may enable “the parallel operation of diverse brain areas in the service of distal goals that extend beyond the current task.” In other words? When you’re daydreaming, your brain is taking a moment and prepping for the future.
So the next time your boss catches you mid space out, simply explain that you were exercising your ability to achieve future goals and complete long term tasks. He doesn’t, however, need to know about the low-sodium Kikkoman sitting in the Biebs' belly button. Dream on, baby!