Daydreaming often gets a bad rap. By its definition, the act of drifting in and out of a tangled pile of memories, plans, fantasies and observations is the opposite of mindfulness, the much-exalted state that requires an intense, vise-like focus on the present moment.
But there is a time and place for daydreaming. For the myriad of instances in our daily routines in which we find ourselves faced with the mundane – a traffic jam, a line at the grocery shopping, a long shower – giving the brain free-rein to wander is not only acceptable, but beneficial.
So the next time you begin to chastise yourself for allowing your mind to escape into the nebulous ether, remember that there are many fruitful answers to the question: Why daydream?
Here are a few of them:
1. To facilitate creativity.
Research suggests that mind wandering encourages creative connections and novel solutions. For example, in a 2012 study conducted by two researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara, 145 undergraduates were asked to come up with as many uses for daily objects (clothes hangers, bricks, toothbrushes, etc.) as they could in two minutes -- a standard exercise to measure creativity. The students were then divided into four groups; one group repeated the exercise again, right away, while the other three groups were given a 12-minute break before starting. The first group was allowed to rest, the second was given a hard memory task to complete and the third was asked to work on a mundane task, specifically engineered to encourage daydreaming.
The students in the tedious-task group significantly outperformed the other participants, coming up with an average of 41 percent more possibilities, which suggests the daydreamers had been, consciously or not, ruminating on the first test for the 12 minutes between exercises. While their minds wandered, they were flipping through the list of everyday items, coming up with uses that may have initially escaped them.
Intuitively, this theory makes sense: Why does a misplaced name hovering on the tip of your tongue suddenly spring forth just as you've consciously allowed your brain to move on to a new topic? Perhaps it's because your brain is still working on low-volume, cobbling together connections that eluded it when your focus was too rigorously directed in one place.
2. To learn from past mistakes.
When we daydream, we often replay past events. Research by the University of Southern California, which explores what happens when our brains are at rest, reveals that when our minds wander they engage in a form of neural processing "that is relatively suppressed when attention is focused on the outside world." This type of thinking is ideal for parsing out our own social emotions and moral connotations; it allows us to review unresolved issues, gives us the space to examine our internal moral compass, identify where we have erred, and adjust our behavior going forward.
3. To plan for the future.
This is directly tied to the previous point: Just as daydreaming frequently involves events from the past, it also frequently involves rehearsing future conversations, allowing us to practice planned encounters, be it with our boss, our spouse or anyone else with whom we have meaningful relationship.
4. To connect the dots.
Research indicates that daydreaming facilitates the ability to connect observations and pieces of information. "People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty," Kalina Christoff, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told The Wall Street Journal. Going by neural activity, however, "mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."
In a series of experiments, researchers at Northwestern University used brain scanners and EEG sensors to study neural activity in a number of participants tasked with solving complex word puzzles. Some came to the correct answer by systematically reviewing each option, while others remained stuck. But a group of volunteers found the answer as if by magic. It wasn't there, and suddenly the brain scanner lit up.
Allowing your brain to freely associate disparate ideas, many researchers believe, facilitates this “eureka” moment, which perhaps helps explain why Newton stumbled upon the rule of gravity while resting under an apple tree, and why, anecdotally, the modern-day shower seems particularly conducive for runaway breakthrough moments.
5. To escape boredom.
This is perhaps the least scientifically impressive reason, but it's the most practical. Life without daydreaming would be one long snooze-fest.
Imagine being trapped in the car, and instead of allowing your mind to drift, remaining truly tethered to the car-congested present. "If we couldn’t do it during a boring task, life would be horrible,” Jonathan Smallwood, a researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara, told The New York Times.
Related: How to Find Joy in the Daily Grind