In de­fence of day­dream­ing


Bore­dom has had a lot of bad press over the years. Au­thor Or­rin Klapp de­scribed bore­dom as a ‘deficit in the qual­ity of life’; Sigmund Freud be­lieved that peo­ple who were prone to day­dream­ing were neu­rotic; and Ger­man philoso­pher Arthur Schopen­hauer called it ‘a re­minder of the mean­ing­less­ness of hu­man ex­is­tence’. Even Charles Dick­ens, who is said to have in­tro­duced the verb ‘to bore’ into the English lan­guage back in 1852 – in his aptly named novel Bleak House – saw it as such a dreary men­tal state that he de­fined it as ‘to pierce, or wear down’.

At least some of this neg­a­tiv­ity is com­pletely valid: bore­dom has been linked to the kind of be­hav­iour one is gen­er­ally en­cour­aged to avoid, such as mind­less snack­ing, inat­ten­tive driv­ing, binge-drink­ing, risky sex­ual choices, poor impulse con­trol and patho­log­i­cal gam­bling. Chronic bore­dom has been iden­ti­fied as a strong pre­dic­tor of para­noia, and other stud­ies have found that a propen­sity for bore­dom was also an in­di­ca­tor of a greater risk for anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion and OCD. (To be clear, bore­dom doesn’t cause any of these con­di­tions, but be­ing prone to bore­dom may be a con­tribut­ing fac­tor.) Poor aca­demic per­for­mance, high dropout rates and mis­takes made on the job have also been traced back to bore­dom.

Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid feel­ing bored. (It’s why Candy Crush ex­ists, if you ask me.) One study even found that, when given the choice be­tween bore­dom and pain, a shock­ing (no pun in­tended) amount of peo­ple chose pain! Two-thirds of the men and a quar­ter of the women par­tic­i­pat­ing in the study chose to give them­selves elec­tric shocks rather than sit in a room alone with no dis­trac­tions for 15 min­utes. An­other team of psy­chol­o­gists gave par­tic­i­pants movies to watch – some were bor­ing, some sad and some neu­tral. The vol­un­teers watch­ing the bor­ing movies shocked them­selves more and harder than the other two groups just to break the monotony.

A point­less emo­tion?

Sandi Mann, psy­chol­o­gist and the au­thor of The Up­side of Down­time: Why

Bore­dom Is Good, first stum­bled onto her pet sub­ject back in the 1990s while she was re­search­ing emo­tions in the work­place. She dis­cov­ered that, sec­ond only to anger, bore­dom was the most com­monly sup­pressed emo­tion.

‘It gets such bad press,’ she said. ‘Al­most ev­ery­thing seems to be blamed on bore­dom.’

But Mann knew there had to be more to this seem­ingly sense­less feel­ing.

‘Every emo­tion has a pur­pose – an evo­lu­tion­ary ben­e­fit,’ she says. ‘I wanted to know why we have this emo­tion of bore­dom, which seems like such a neg­a­tive, point­less emo­tion.’ She soon dis­cov­ered it ac­tu­ally served a greater pur­pose.

‘When we’re bored, we’re search­ing for some­thing to stim­u­late us that we can’t find in our im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings,’ Mann ex­plains. ‘So we might try to find that stim­u­la­tion by our minds wandering and go­ing to some place in our heads. That is what can stim­u­late cre­ativ­ity, be­cause once you start day­dream­ing and al­low­ing your


mind to wan­der, you start think­ing be­yond the con­scious and into the sub­con­scious. This process al­lows dif­fer­ent con­nec­tions to take place.’

‘Sci­en­tif­i­cally, day­dream­ing is an in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non be­cause it speaks to the ca­pac­ity that peo­ple have to cre­ate thought in a pure way, rather than thought hap­pen­ing when it’s a re­sponse to events in the out­side world,’ says psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Small­wood, who’s been study­ing mind-wandering for more than 20 years and uses cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science tools.

When you’re con­sciously per­form­ing a task, even a mun­dane one such as copy­ing over words or numbers, you’re us­ing the ‘ex­ec­u­tive at­ten­tion net­work’ in the brain – the parts that con­trol and con­strain your at­ten­tion.

‘The ex­ec­u­tive at­ten­tion net­work makes it pos­si­ble for us to re­late di­rectly to the world around us – that is, here and now,’ ex­plains neu­ro­sci­en­tist Mar­cus Raichle.

When your mind wan­ders, how­ever, you’re tap­ping into a part of the brain called the ‘de­fault mode net­work’. So even when you’re com­pletely spaced out and not fo­cused on an ‘ex­ter­nal, goal-ori­ented task’, your mind doesn’t ever ac­tu­ally ‘switch off’. In­stead, it goes into de­fault mode.

In de­fault mode

With the help of brain-imag­ing tech­nol­ogy, neu­ro­sci­en­tists can see what our brains are do­ing when we’re en­gaged in an ac­tiv­ity, and when we’re day­dream­ing.

‘Most ex­per­i­men­tal par­a­digms and the­o­ries tend to in­volve us show­ing some­thing to the brain or the mind and watch­ing what hap­pens,’ says Small­wood. ‘Mind­wan­der­ing is spe­cial be­cause it doesn’t fit into that phe­nom­e­non.’

In this case, the brain is ob­served in the ab­sence of ex­ter­nal stim­uli, and it has given Small­wood a new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for an act that seemed triv­ial. Day­dream­ing, he says, is ac­tu­ally so cru­cial to hu­mankind as a species that ‘it could be at the crux of what makes hu­mans dif­fer­ent from less com­pli­cated an­i­mals’. Mind-wandering lies at the cen­tre of a num­ber of uniquely hu­man skills, from cre­ativ­ity to map­ping out and pre­par­ing for the fu­ture.

Study par­tic­i­pants are given noth­ing else to do but look at a still im­age while hav­ing an MRI, so Small­wood can de­ter­mine the neu­ral changes that oc­cur dur­ing de­fault mode. It turns out we use only 5% less en­ergy in de­fault mode than we do when we’re en­gaged in ac­tive, fo­cused think­ing. Dur­ing the scans, the brains of the test sub­jects ‘ex­hibit[ed] very or­gan­ised, spon­ta­neous ac­tiv­ity’, de­spite… be­ing ‘inat­ten­tive’.

‘When you’re given noth­ing to do, your thoughts don’t stop. You con­tinue to gen­er­ate thought even when there’s noth­ing for you to do with the thoughts,’ says Small­wood.

The scans have shown that cer­tain ar­eas of the brain are ac­ti­vated when we go into de­fault mode: the me­dial tem­po­ral lobe, the me­dial pre­frontal cor­tex, and the pos­te­rior cin­gu­late cor­tex. So what are these parts of the brain re­spon­si­ble for?

‘They’re very ac­tive in au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­ory [our per­sonal

ar­chive of life ex­pe­ri­ences], the­ory of mind [essen­tially, our abil­ity to imag­ine what oth­ers are think­ing and feel­ing] and – this one’s a doozy – self-ref­er­en­tial pro­cess­ing [craft­ing a co­her­ent sense of self], writes Manoush Zo­morodi in her book Bored and Bril­liant: How Spac­ing Out Can Un­lock Your Most Pro­duc­tive and Cre­ative Self.

‘When we lose fo­cus on the out­side world and drift in­ward, we’re not shut­ting down,’ she writes. ‘We’re tap­ping into a vast trove of mem­o­ries, imag­in­ing fu­ture pos­si­bil­i­ties, dis­sect­ing our in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple, and re­flect­ing on who we are. It feels like we’re wast­ing time when we wait for the long­est red light in the world to turn green, but the brain is putting ideas and events into per­spec­tive.’

Those bor­ing stretches of time give us time to re­flect. And they’re very nec­es­sary, be­cause as soon as we en­gage in a task that de­mands our at­ten­tion, the de­fault mode net­work is turned off.

‘Day­dream­ing is es­pe­cially cru­cial for a species like ours, where so­cial in­ter­ac­tions are im­por­tant,’ Small­wood says. ‘That’s be­cause in day-to-day life, the most un­pre­dictable things you en­counter are other peo­ple. Day­dream­ing re­flects the need to make sense of com­pli­cated as­pects of life.’

The de­fault mode, says Zo­morodi in her TED Talk, is where ‘we con­nect dis­parate ideas, we solve some of our most nag­ging prob­lems, and we do some­thing called “au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal plan­ning”. This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big mo­ments, we cre­ate a per­sonal nar­ra­tive, then we set goals and fig­ure out what steps we need to take to reach them.’

Great minds think alike

An­dreas Elpi­dorou, a re­searcher in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy at the Univer­sity of Louisville, be­lieves that bore­dom is the ul­ti­mate mo­ti­va­tor. In his 2014 aca­demic ar­ti­cle ‘The Bright Side of Bore­dom’, he ar­gues that bore­dom ‘acts as a reg­u­la­tory state’ that keeps you in line with your projects.

‘In the ab­sence of bore­dom, one would re­main trapped in un­ful­fill­ing sit­u­a­tions and miss out on many emo­tion­ally, cog­ni­tively and so­cially re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. Bore­dom is both a warn­ing that we are not do­ing what we want to be do­ing and a “push” that mo­ti­vates us to switch goals and projects.’

‘You could say that bore­dom is an in­cu­ba­tor lab for bril­liance,’ writes Zo­morodi. ‘It’s the messy, un­com­fort­able, con­fus­ing, frus­trat­ing place one has to oc­cupy for a while be­fore fi­nally com­ing up with the win­ning equa­tion or for­mula.’ JRR Tolkien, for ex­am­ple, came up with the idea for The

Hob­bit when he was a pro­fes­sor at Ox­ford, dur­ing a task he de­scribed as ‘very la­bo­ri­ous and un­for­tu­nately also bor­ing’: a day spent mark­ing exam pa­pers. When he came across a page one stu­dent had sim­ply left blank, he was elated.

‘Glo­ri­ous! Noth­ing to read,’ he told the BBC in 1968. ‘So I scrib­bled on it, I can’t think why, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hob­bit”’ – words that would later be­come the open­ing sen­tence of one of the most beloved works of fic­tion ever writ­ten.

Friedrich Ni­et­zsche wrote that great artists ‘re­quire a lot of bore­dom if their work is to suc­ceed. For thinkers and all sen­si­tive spir­its, bore­dom is that dis­agree­able “wind­less calm” of the soul that pre­cedes a happy voy­age and cheer­ful winds. They have to bear it and must wait for its ef­fect on them.’

Bore­dom has also played a piv­otal role in many great artis­tic and sci­en­tific break­throughs. It’s said that Descartes ‘dis­cov­ered’ the no­tions of x and y while he was laz­ing in bed, watch­ing a fly on the ceil­ing. Ein­stein homed in on the the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity while he was tak­ing a break from his math­e­mat­i­cal ex­er­cises and let­ting his imag­i­na­tion wan­der. And Archimedes solved a puz­zle he’d been strug­gling with for ages while he was re­lax­ing in the bath.

In 1983, chemist Kary Mullis was driv­ing home from his cabin in the woods when he came up with an idea for du­pli­cat­ing DNA frag­ments in un­lim­ited quan­ti­ties – an in­ven­tion that would later earn him a No­bel Prize in chem­istry. He cred­ited that brain­wave to his time spent in the car, say­ing, ‘That’s when I did most of my think­ing… be­cause day-to-day life at the lab doesn’t al­low a lot of time.’

Ap­ple co-founder Steve Jobs de­scribed him­self as ‘a big be­liever in bore­dom… All the [tech­nol­ogy] stuff is won­der­ful, but hav­ing noth­ing to do can be won­der­ful, too’.

In an in­ter­view with Wired, Jobs spoke about the end­lessly bor­ing sum­mers of his youth. He said they had awak­ened his sense of cu­rios­ity as a child, and that ‘out of cu­rios­ity comes ev­ery­thing’. He also wor­ried that the de­vices he had helped cre­ate were elim­i­nat­ing those un­der­rated mo­ments of bore­dom from our ev­ery­day lives.

This is some­thing Zo­morodi agrees with whole­heart­edly. ‘[I]t’s de­struc­tive to fill all the cracks in our day with check­ing email, up­dat­ing Twit­ter…,’ she writes. By fill­ing every spare mo­ment we are no longer giv­ing our­selves a chance to process our thoughts or come up with our best ideas.

End­less day­dream­ing, how­ever, is also not a good thing. Small­wood likens it to smart­phone use: ‘Smart­phones al­low us to do all kinds of amaz­ing things like con­tact peo­ple from great dis­tances, but we can get trapped into de­vot­ing our en­tire life to them, That’s not the smart­phone’s fault.’

The same goes for re­play­ing mis­takes over and over in your mind, or brood­ing over cir­cum­stances you can’t change.

So the next time you’re feel­ing bored, don’t look for dis­trac­tions. Our nat­u­ral in­cli­na­tion is to seek out­side stim­u­la­tion, says clin­i­cal and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Pro­fes­sor John East­wood, who’s been re­search­ing bore­dom for more than 10 years. But this, he says, is the worst thing you can do.

‘Like the trap of quick­sand, such thrash­ing only serves to strengthen the grip of bore­dom by fur­ther alien­at­ing us from our de­sire and pas­sion, which pro­vide com­pass points for sat­is­fy­ing en­gage­ment with life.’ In­stead, East­wood and his re­search team rec­om­mend view­ing bore­dom as a chance to ‘dis­cover the pos­si­bil­ity and con­tent of one’s de­sires’.

‘By de­sign, day­dream­ing is help­ful to us when we’re stuck on a prob­lem – per­sonal, pro­fes­sional or oth­er­wise,’ writes Zo­morodi. ‘And bore­dom is one of the best cat­a­lysts to kick-start the process.’


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