There’s something about these middle weeks of summer that feel less hurried, less brimming, more casual. At a certain point of the season, everybody remembers to relax a little and soak it in. The “lazy days” mood got me thinking about daydreaming – those lost minutes (maybe hours) in which we unintentionally slip into contemplation. Sometimes we end up floating into more serious ruminations. Other times, it’s just loose and happy reverie. We all do it – whether it’s looking out the window of our morning train, laying in the backyard hammock, or sitting (standing, rather!) at our work desk. It can often happen even if we’re trying to focus. Call it a lapse in discipline, but the brain seems to have its own agenda in those moments. Is there some purpose here beyond mere escapism? What is the brain really up to, and what could daydreaming have to do with well-being?
Grant me a little musing of my own. When I was young I went to the woods to explore, tear around, and ultimately end up daydreaming on a tall rock or tree branch. Summer was the perfect time for this, of course. I was free to make the whole day. Boredom was the catalyst for many an imagined contraption or random life realization. It makes me wonder how much time the over-scheduled child has for daydreaming these days in his/her summer. We adults, too, suffer in an existence characterized by constant bombardments of input. Daydreaming, however endangered, is still at least encouraged within childhood. But we adults are supposed to be above such nonsensical bouts of inefficiency. I’d call it another blow to those things deemed “optional” that are actually essential for living a good life.
According to one recent research survey, we underappreciate the impact of introspection and daydreaming on our cognitive life and individual wellness. Open-ended reflection, Dr. Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California notes, is critical to our development of personal reasoning and socioemotional well-being. It can help us synthesize learning and experience – to make memory and meaning of them in our lives. Sometimes, however, reflection can favor fantasy to blunt an emotional impact when we’re simply frustrated by or deeply disturbed by the circumstances of our day. Daydreaming can be as protective as it can be productive.
Studies demonstrate the neurological profile of a wandering mind as much more dynamic than simply a default setting. Sure, daydreaming can be restful, but it’s more than mental idling. Scans of study participants reveal the daydreaming brain is operating with both the default functioning seen in routine tasks and the highly intricate “executive network” accessed for complex problem-solving. Perhaps most surprising, the less conscious participants were of their mental wandering, the more “activated” the executive network was.
Research has shown we spend roughly a third to a half of our waking hours in the clouds so to speak. Some of us journey further out and more frequently than others, and it may be related to our cognitive dispositions. According to research, people who tend to daydream demonstrate more creativity in study measures. Nonetheless, the practice accesses subterranean potential in all of us. In one research study, subjects allowed to daydream outperformed other groups in a creativity focused test by more than 40%. Some mental wanderings are undoubtedly more fruitful than others, but overall it’s the process more than the product that seems to matter.
I’d argue here of course that daydreaming is an essential dimension of play. In daydreaming, we’re free to psychologically traverse through every obscure or far flung thought. We’re welcome to try on any solution or scenario that piques our interest at the moment. However, emotional or practical, daydreaming hones our emotional and cognitive dexterity. We take apart a problem and perceive it from an entirely new angle. We reflect on an overriding emotion, pose ourselves in a novel role, and suddenly process it on some unique level. Who hasn’t indulged in a little Walter Mitty style fantasy and not felt better – or at least been pleasantly amused – for it? Isn’t it how we become more fully ourselves?
More seriously, it’s also partly how our species has become more deftly human. Some of humanity’s greatest inventions, most beautiful creations, and profound thoughts have stemmed from a bald-faced lack of intention. Anyone who’s had a eureka moment while daydreaming in the shower can attest to this phenomenon. Far from some shiftless indulgence, daydreaming is part of our species’ cerebral jackpot. There was perhaps more to adaptive advantage than conscious strategizing. Daydreaming, with its unique neurological profile, opens up the chance for random connection, irrelevant association, and novel insight. At some point along the evolutionary line, these were the game changers.
When you daydream, the fact is, you’re exercising your mental muscle. You’re honing your critical and creative thinking. You’re sowing the seed of self-development. You’re owning your evolutionarily bestowed cerebral potential – and its privilege. Maybe, along the way, you’re finding a meaningful resolution to a pragmatic challenge or just turning over an existential question. Put away the techno gadgets and other “pellet” distractions. See what comes out of free, spontaneous thinking. The exercise is more Primal than you think.
Here’s a casual suggestion for the day: Embrace the leisure of summer and make some time for losing yourself in thought. Drop everything and do it now, or schedule it if you have to. Don’t go to bed tonight without endeavoring some kind of cerebral journey. Your brain – and perhaps your well-being – will be the better for it.
Enjoy the rest of your week, everyone. Let me know your thoughts. Thanks for stopping by today.
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