There's a Wrong Way to Daydream—Here's How to Do It Right
A study by those Harvard researchers found that mind wandering consumed an average of 47 percent of people's waking hours. This begs the question: If mind wandering is so costly to our well-being, then why in the world are we so willing to spend nearly half of our lives in this mental state?
Creative thinkers know, despite what their parents and teachers might have told them, that daydreaming is hardly a waste of time. But unfortunately, many students learn to suppress their natural instincts to dream and imagine—instead, they're taught to fit into a standardized mold and to learn by the book, in a way that may not feel natural and that very well may suppress their innate desire to create. But as two prominent psychologists recently noted, "Not all minds who wander are lost" —in fact, the mind's wandering is vital to imagination and creative thought.
Nearly 50 years ago, psychologist Jerome L. Singer established that daydreaming is a normal and indeed widespread aspect of human experience. He found that many people are "happy daydreamers" who enjoy their inner imagery and fantasy. According to Singer, these daydreamers "simply value and enjoy their private experiences, are willing to risk wasting a certain amount of time on them, but also can apparently use them for effective planning and for self-amusement during periods of monotonous task activity or boredom."
Singer coined the term "positive-constructive daydreaming" to describe this type of mind wandering, which he distinguished from poor attention and anxious, obsessive fantasies. By making these important distinctions, Singer was able to highlight the positive, adaptive role that daydreaming can play in our daily lives, under the right circumstances. From the beginning of his research, he found evidence that daydreaming, imagination and fantasy are related to creativity, storytelling and even the ability to delay gratification.
Of course, mind wandering can be costly when it comes at the wrong time, especially in regard to things like reading comprehension, sustained attention, memory and academic performance. The inability to control your attention when the task at hand requires it often leads to frustration, just as the tendency to get wrapped up in distracting negative thoughts can lead to unhappiness. But when we consider the fact that most of our important life goals lie far into the future, it's easier to see how daydreaming might be beneficial. When our inner monologues are directed toward and measured against goals, aspirations and dreams that are personally meaningful, the benefits of daydreaming become much more clear.
Over the past decade, scientists have employed newer methodologies to investigate these potential benefits. In a review of the latest science of daydreaming, Scott and colleague Rebecca McMillan noted that mind wandering offers very personal rewards, including creative incubation, self-awareness, future-planning, reflection on the meaning of one's experiences and even compassion.
Take creative incubation, for starters. Many of us know from experience that our best ideas come seemingly out of the blue when our minds are off wandering elsewhere. Idle though it may seem, the act of mind wandering is often anything but mindless. Research suggests that an incubation period of mind wandering leads to improvements in creative thinking. The next time you're working hard on a creative project or work assignment that requires intense focus and creative chops, try taking a five-minute daydreaming break every hour or so, and see how it affects your ideas and thinking. During this break, engage in a simple activity that will allow your mind to wander, like walking, doodling or cleaning. Consider this our creative incubation period and see if you feel a renewed sense of creative energy when you get back to work.
With meditation, the most common way of practicing mindfulness, recently exploding in popularity, we're told increasingly to focus on the here and now, whether we're in the shower, on our commute or sitting in the lotus pose for our morning meditation. So where does that leave daydreaming?
There seems to be a tension between mindfulness, which emphasizes the stilling of the thoughts to cultivate a quiet, peaceful mind, and daydreaming—or "spontaneous mental time travel," as some psychologists have referred to it—which encourages us to let any and all of our thoughts roam free, sometimes, yes, at the expense of being fully aware of our present surroundings. How can the benefits of mind wandering, which beckons us to disconnect from our surroundings, be reconciled with the many mental health and cognitive benefits of mindfulness?
While there are a number of distinct creative benefits associated with mindfulness, being distracted isn't always a bad thing. As University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers noted in a recent report, a balance between external-directed focus and a free-flowing inward attention may be our natural state.
"Consciousness is continuously moving with ever-changing content, but also ebbs like a breaking wave, outwardly expanding and then inwardly retreating," the researchers write.
Successful innovators are often adept in harnessing both of these important mental states as their creative process calls for them. A connection to our inner selves and our stream of consciousness is undeniably what makes us creative. We all have the potential to become artists precisely because we dream. We should allow ourselves to balance the focused mind with the wandering mind, and skilled daydreamers do this naturally. Research has found that those whose daydreams are most positive and most specific also score high in mindfulness.
It may be wise, then, to question whether we should always be living in the moment and whether this is the best way to foster creative thinking. Finding this "middle way" between mindfulness and mind wandering can help us enjoy optimal benefits of both ways of thinking. Mindfulness helps us truly see what's around us—a skill of paramount importance in life and art—but it must be balanced with giving the mind space to dream, fantasize,and simply roam free.
From WIRED TO CREATE: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, published by Perigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire.