Your brain is hard at work even when you look like you’re just staring off into space.
It may be socially frowned upon, but most of us spend one-third to half of our waking moments with our heads in the clouds.
In a society that reveres doers and go-getters, it’s not always easy to daydream. There are names for those who do, and most aren’t pretty (think underachiever, space cadet, slacker).
But if you covet regular brain breaks, you’ll be happy to know mind meandering isn’t squandered time. You may not look like a productivity star while staring out the window, but your brain is hard at work in ways scientists are still figuring out. In one new study, frequent daydreamers scored higher on tests of intellectual and creative ability, and had more efficient brain systems as measured by MRI.
“People with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering,” says co-author Eric Schumacher, a psychology professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Our findings remind me of the absent-minded professor — someone who’s brilliant, but off in his or her own world, sometimes oblivious to their own surroundings. Or school children who are too intellectually advanced for their classes. While it may take five minutes for their friends to learn something new, they figure it out in a minute, then check out and start daydreaming.”
In fact, turning your thoughts loose can make you more productive than your peers who spend less time spacing out or who override the urge. Apparently, South Koreans are on to this — check out their annual “spacing out” competition.
So next time you’re struggling to drag yourself back to reality, consider these ways daydreaming can benefit you — and feel free to keep on dreaming.
It heightens your ability to perform complex mental tasks
Were your parents and teachers always reminding you to pay attention? Turns out all those “lost” hours were just as important as the ones spent doing “important” tasks like homework and taking notes. Scientists have long thought that solving mental puzzles required full activation of the brain’s network for external, goal-focused thinking and a shutdown of the neural network for internal thinking (which includes “interfering” daydreams). Now researchers at Cornell University have found that mental performance is sharpened when both external and internal networks are employed together. So next time you need to ramp up your brainpower, don’t rein in your wandering mind. Let it roam a bit for maximum smarts.
It boosts your intelligence
If your knack for losing yourself in thought ever got between you and good grades, don’t worry. Chances are you’re more intelligent than your school records suggest. In fact, you may be a genius. Researchers theorize that there are many types of intelligence beyond the traditional cognitive skills measured on IQ tests — things such as musical and spatial intelligence. Now NYU psychology professor Scott Barry Kaufman suggests expanding the list of intelligences to include “spontaneous” cognitive skills like intuition and sudden insights, which are only accessed by letting your mind ramble. Your daydreaming may not be a direct route to straight As, but it can make you more successful than your more outwardly-focused peers, says Kaufman, by significantly enhancing your personal awareness, your understanding of events and others, and your ability to achieve your dreams.
It makes you more creative
If you’re particularly skilled at zoning out, you’re in good company. Scientific giants like Albert Einstein and literary masters like the Bronte sisters, to name just a few, were all gifted daydreamers. In fact, setting their minds adrift led to their most towering creative achievements and “aha” moments. A recent study by scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, helps explain this daydreaming-creativity connection. Researchers found that people who took a mental break after working on a demanding creative task by performing a mindless task were about 40 percent more creative when they returned to the tough task than those who rested, worked on a different demanding task, or took no break at all. The conclusion: Boring tasks that foster daydreaming open the creativity gates.
It helps relaxation and cuts harmful stress
There’s not a lot of research on using daydreaming to relax. But because it’s similar to other mind-calming techniques like meditation, guided imagery and hypnosis — all of which give your brain a mini-vacation from high-intensity, task-focused thinking — the effects may be similar. Relaxation methods are known to cut stress by taking your mind off worrying thoughts and slowing body functions, including heart rate and breathing. In turn, this boosts your body’s health by reducing stress-related symptoms, like high blood pressure and headaches, and improving your ability to fight off illness. Assuming your daydreams are pleasant distractions from life’s hustle and bustle, indulging in daily reveries should not only tame tension and anxiety but also enhance your physical vitality.
It strengthens your working memory
It might seem like daydreaming would dull your ability to remember things, like, say, what your boss said at the morning meeting or where you put your car keys. But research suggests your straying thoughts aren’t actually memory killers. In fact, mind drifting may enhance your working memory (the ability to retain and recall lots of information at once). Scientists from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science found that participants who performed easy tasks that promoted daydreaming were more likely to remember information on a tough memorization task later, even when they were distracted. In other words, your wandering mind bolsters your storage-and-retrieval skills.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was first published in December 2014.
Einstein photo: Doris Ulmann/public domain