It’s a familiar scenario. You are sitting at your desk and you realize you’ve been staring at the computer screen for five minutes without doing a thing! Other times you may be in a meeting and realize you haven’t heard a word of what the speaker is saying because your mind was elsewhere.
Or, you could be one of those people who is unlikely to finish writing a few pages without drifting off and staring out the window blankly. At which point, you will be lost in thought probably thinking about your next project or changing your mind a couple of times about what to have for dinner.
Whether you recognize it or not, all of us daydream and let our minds wonder from the task at hand. According to Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, associate professor of psychology at New York University, as much as 50% of daily cognition is spent on spontaneous cognition.
Basically, a lot of our time is spent daydreaming, mind wandering, drifting off, woolgathering, spacing out or building castles in the air. “It is a fundamentally human cognitive process that arises from our inner stream of consciousness,” Kaufman explains.
Daydreaming or mind wondering happens when the mind stops being present and thinks about concerns unrelated to the task at hand. Yale University Emeritus psychology professor Jerome L. Singer defines daydreaming as shifting attention “away from some primary physical or mental task toward an unfolding sequence of private responses” or, more simply, “watching your own mental videos.”
For many people daydreams, fantasies and wondering minds are often followed by feelings of shame and guilt as they are considered akin to shirking. But, increasing the amount of imaginative daydreaming we do or replaying variants of the millions of scenarios we store in our brain can be beneficial, especially for creative people.
Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006 imagined “another world,” to which he retreated as a child, where he was “someone else, somewhere else ... in my grandmother's sitting room, I'd pretend to be inside a submarine.”
Albert Einstein pictured himself running along a light wave—a reverie that led to his theory of special relativity. Filmmaker Tim Burton daydreamed his way to Hollywood success, spending his childhood holed up in his bedroom, creating posters for an imaginary horror film series.
As for author J.K Rowling, we’re all indebted to her wondering mind and fantastic imagination for enabling her to create the Harry Potter book series.
So, how exactly does daydreaming or mind wondering benefit creative people?
Researchers think that our most inventive and creative moments come when daydreaming. That’s because the daydreaming mind can make associations between bits of information that the person had never considered in that particular way.
“This accounts for creativity, insights of wisdom and oftentimes the solutions to problems that the person had not considered,” says Eugenio M. Rothe, a psychiatrist at Florida International University.
Daydreaming and fantasy provide a virtual world where we can imagine new adventures, explore fearful scenarios or rehearse the future without risk. It helps us devise creative solutions to problems or concerns and also prompts us, while immersed in one task, to think about other important goals.
Ethel S. Person, late professor of clinical psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University” stressed that fantasies have to do with future goals and dreams. "They can help establish goals and provide motivation to strive for them," she said in an interview.
Dr. Jonathan Schooler, from the University of Santa Barbara in California's department of psychological and brain sciences agrees. “Mind wandering," he says, "seems to be very useful for planning and creative thought.”
Just think about it, daydreaming or mind wandering is something very personal and individual. We often don’t even know when and how we start to mind wonder, mentally rehearse a situation or fantasize life’s possibilities.
By taking time out for a reverie, daydreamers get a brief respite from the pain of the here-and-now. They also unwittingly devise solutions to their own personal “demons.” Aha moments don't usually come from a directed focus on a task, but by letting our minds wander and open up to other possibilities.
Besides, “Most daydreams are self-soothing and for sexual arousal,” Person said. “That's why fantasy is so crucial to how we lead our lives,” she insisted.
Working memory is the mental work space that allows the brain to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously. “The sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life — when they're on the bus, when they're cycling to work, when they're in the shower — are probably supported by working memory," says Jonathan Smallwood of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science.
These off-topic thoughts can take the main stage without us consciously meaning them to; for example, arriving at home with no recollection of the actual trip. Mind wondering and daydreaming, it seems, give your working memory a workout. When you have more working memory and it is fit, you can do more daydreaming without forgetting the task at hand.
Researchers actually think the most intelligent people among us are those with stronger working memory. Daydreaming can, thus, make you smarter.
"Mind wandering is in a lot of ways what makes each of us individual and gives us our own unique personal character," observes Dr. Kaufman.
"Without our ability to turn our attention inward and daydream, we are really not making personal meaning of our environment – and we are limiting our capacity for personal reflection and identity reflection," he says.
Of course, there are situations where daydreaming or mind-wandering is inappropriate or downright dangerous because it can sap our attention and detract us from task performance. When reading, for example, daydreaming too much is a major obstacle to comprehension, notes Schooler. That said, embrace being alone with your thoughts.
It’s also best - as creative people - that we limit the time we spend hunched over tech gadgets to encourage daydreaming. These gadgets steal a lot of time that people would ordinarily be daydreaming. That's because people are always playing with their gadgets instead of being alone with their thoughts. Just look at what passengers in trains and buses are doing.
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