Woohoo! Scientists are now promoting active daydreaming as a productive pursuit. Finally, something I am good at.
A wandering mind has always been considered a failure to concentrate on productive tasks. I remember all my childhood school reports – “Can do better. Sam needs to stop talking, focus and concentrate on the tasks set.” It would seem that daydreaming was a waste of time.
There is now a growing number of studies that support mind-wandering as a means to foster creativity and forward planning. I know, from bitter experience, that persistent and perpetual use of logical functions under highly stressful conditions, critically damages one’s ability to be creative. Now, it seems, that allowing your mind to deliberately meander allows for more positive mental attributes.
A group of scientists (Seli et al) have imaged the brains of people from two distinct categories – intentional mind-wanderers and unintentional ones. On the whole, both groups wandered about the same amount, but Seli discovered that their brains were set up slightly differently. Those who intentionally wandered, showed a better connectivity between their frontal lobe (where mental processes such as focusing attention, remembering instructions, multi-tasking ability etc lies) and the so-called, Default Mode Network. This is the area of the brain that is most active when a person is unfocused, or at wakeful rest. It is also active when a person is thinking about themselves, remembering the past or planning for the future.
Initially, it was thought that daydreaming prevented the frontal lobe, or executive functioning area of the brain, to retain control. Now it appears that deliberate mind-wandering allows the executive functions to take charge of the experience. You experience the day-dream, but you are still in full control of your mind.
The difference between the two categories of people are important, since, in the past, day-dreaming had been associated with symptoms of ADHD and OCD, both conditions exhibiting difficulty in controlling certain behaviours. Latest studies show that this may only be true of those who mind-wander unintentionally.
There are many benefits to active mind-wandering, enhancing your mood being but one. Jonathan Smallwood, from the University of York, found that wanderings on the future or past determines whether a person can be deflected from their goals or prepared for up-coming challenges. He found that even if thoughts of the future were negative, it still had the effect of boosting motivation and mood. Thinking primarily about the past appeared to lead to low, more depressive states.
Seli’s research showed that people who have a knack for mindfulness, that being, the natural ability to dwell on the present moment, had a tendency to intentionally mind-wander. He suggests that focus through mindful meditation can turn our unintentional daydream into the more helpful, deliberate kind. Tricks of intentional daydreaming include, doodling while listening, completing a brainless task, such as making tea or taking a shower, or even offering yourself a reward at the end of essential activities.
Either way, it gives licence to those of us who spend vast amounts of time, mind-wandering our way into the next storyline, or fixing a stubborn plot hole in the Work-In-Progress. To the outsider, I may look as though I am daydreaming my life away. To another writer, I am working my socks off.