Is there any benefit to daydreaming?
WE spend up to 50% of our waking time letting our minds wander. Is this just wasted time?
You have won £4m on the lottery – how will you spend it? Before you know it, that’s 10 minutes gone on daydreaming. But what about driving in your car and arriving at your destination without remembering how you got there. There is a time and a place for daydreaming, but we don’t have much control over when we do it. Since an estimated 30%-50% of our waking time is spent daydreaming, isn’t this worrying? What if your dentist is having that lottery daydream while drilling your teeth?
Some studies suggest daydreaming makes us unhappy because we are not focusing on what is around us, but are instead thinking about the past or future. A paper in Science concluded that the “wandering mind is an unhappy mind” because you find happiness by living in the moment. But a study this month in the journal Neuropsychologica finds that people whose minds wander the most may score higher on tests that measure intellectual and creative ability. The researchers measured the brain patterns of more than 100 people while they lay in an MRI scanner, focusing on a dull, stationary point for five minutes. This data was compared to tests on creative ability and a questionnaire on how much their minds usually wandered. Those who said their minds wandered the most scored higher on intellectual and creative ability tests and had more efficient brain systems measured in the MRI machine.
An example of being efficient at mind-wandering is if you can zone in and out of conversations or tasks and then naturally tune back in without missing important points or steps. There is a distinction between mind-wandering, where you think of things other than the task you are doing, and daydreaming when, for example, you are on a train doing nothing and detach yourself from the world around you.
Christine Godwin, the lead author of the latest study from the School of Psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology, says that if you are focusing on difficult tasks, your performance will drop if your mind wanders. “But when tasks are easy and you are doing something that’s not demanding, people who have high cognitive ability can let their minds wander because it does not affect their performance. You may be thinking about upcoming goals or problem-solving and come up with a solution. These are some of the positive attributes with mind-wandering.”
Mind-wandering can vary between being problemsolving or more emotional. Some researchers swear its ubiquitous nature means it must have a useful function in helping us to insights we would not get from being fully in the moment. What mind-wandering seems to be best at is coming up with new solutions to old problems. So, it’s not a waste of time at all.
Office staff daydreaming.