Daydreaming: why our minds love to wander

GET your head out of the clouds… this phrase must have been used by schoolteachers, time and again, when students are not paying attention.

It happens when a particular subject does not appeal to them, and their minds wander on to something more interesting than whatever they were supposed to be focusing on.

According to research, however, it’s not just children whose minds wander. Harvard researchers enrolled more than 2,200 adults, aged 18-88, for a study in which they were sent regular text messages, questioning what they were doing and thinking.

Participants reported that their minds wandered an astonishing 46.9% of the time, often on to positive things, such as getting a promotion, piloting an aircraft, inventing a new kind of space travel… or even founding a small island society.

In short, people love to daydream!

All this daydreaming might sound counter-productive and even unhealthy. But new research is beginning to show that it might not be. According to research, published in the Creativity Research Journal, daydreaming and “pretend” play are associated with greater creativity in children.

For many kids, fantasies form a basis for social activity with their friends, a way to explore their interests, and a vehicle for engaging in creative pursuits, such as drawing or story-telling.

And novel solutions to problems can even crop up in daydreams.

Some years ago, in the National Geographic magazine, Eugenio Rothe, a University of Florida psychiatrist, told author Christine Dell’Amore that, as our minds wander, different part of our brains activate, accessing information that may, previously, have been dormant, or out of reach.

Rothe said: “This accounts for creativity, insights of wisdom and, often, the solution to problems the person had not considered.”

A  published study even showed that certain kinds of daydreaming can make people more productive. Nearly 100 college students were asked to name one of the most important goals in their lives.

Participants named everything, from making new friends or finding a significant other, to topping a class.

A section of the students were then asked to undergo an

hour-long intervention, consisting, in part, of daydreaming about their chosen goal, while other students took part in either a stress-management intervention, or no intervention at all.

A month later, students were sent an online survey, asking them to rate the degree of progress they had made towards the goals they had set during the initial session.

The results indicated that those who participated in just one session of daydreaming, reported significantly-greater progress than participants in either of the comparison conditions.

Perhaps our school-teachers were wrong, yet they might not have been totally wrong!

According to research, when not undergoing a formal daydreaming intervention, those whose minds wander naturally, tend to report feeling less happy after a

mind-wandering episode, than when they manage to keep focused on whatever activity they’re supposed to be doing.

In other words, daydreaming can sometimes be distracting and even frustrating. So what determines when daydreams are good for us, and when they’re simply distracting?

Although researchers still aren’t completely sure, one key may be the degree of realism present in the daydream.

Fantasy-based daydreams can lead to disappointment, emphasising how we wish our lives would be, but aren’t.

Realistic daydreams, on the other hand, show us what might actually be possible in our lives. They give us mental practice, pursuing important goals, before we have to invest any real time or effort.

In another intervention study, participants were asked to engage a different kind of daydreaming from those indulged by most children.

It is known as “structured daydreaming,” and, instead of indulging in flights of fancy about becoming US President, a powerful sorcerer, or a rich impresario, participants were asked to be much more realistic in the images they conjured.

They were instructed to close their eyes and use all their senses, vividly, to imagine themselves pursuing a real-life goal, complete with experiencing the frustration of dealing with obstacles that might stand in their way.

But, whereas fantasy-based daydreaming gives people the pleasant experience of enjoying a mental reward, without any effort, structured daydreaming forces people to rehearse exactly what they’ll need to do to accomplish their real-life goals.

There’s nothing complicated about structured daydreaming, and, to enjoy your own, simply choose a real-life goal you want to accomplish during the next few months. Then, close your eyes for 20 minutes and see yourself pursuing that goal, as realistically as you can.

Don’t skip to the pay-off, as you would, normally, in a fantasy-based dream. Instead, see yourself working vividly on, and succeeding at, each step you’ll need to take.

If your goal is to cook more often, for example, you could begin by imagining the first step along your journey: going shopping for ingredients.

Picture yourself walking up and down the aisles of your local grocery store, smelling the scents of various foods, and choosing which ones to purchase.

Do the same thing for each step, leading to your goal. If you think you might encounter obstacles along the way, don’t ignore them. On the contrary, see yourself facing these obstacles and circumnavigating them, using alternative plans.

Like so many pleasurable things, red wine and ice-cream included, daydreaming by itself isn’t unhealthy. But it does matter how and when we do it.

And having our heads in the clouds all day long probably isn’t a good idea, but, when done in appropriate ways and at appropriate times, daydreaming can actually help us be more successful in life.

Besides, if we’re going to do it 46.9% of time anyway, we might as well make it work for us.


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Posted by on Jun 7 2019. Filed under Health & Beauty. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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