Chances are you’ll space out a few times before you finish reading this article. Science says that our minds are wandering up to 50 percent of the time. But get this: That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Studies show that daydreaming can benefit your brain — and productivity — in multiple ways.
Multitasking for Your Brain
Scientists have found that daydreams, defined as “spontaneous, self-directed thoughts and associations,” activate many areas of the brain at once, stimulating increased creativity, cognitive capacity and improved mood.
Daydreaming can help your brain multitask by pushing it to process multiple thoughts at once.
Daydreaming and Goal Achievement
Rather than sidetracking you, daydreaming can help you to achieve your goals. While studying whether they could electrically induce daydreams (by the way, they can), researchers at Bar-Ilan University unexpectedly discovered that daydreams can help you get stuff done.
“Interestingly, while our study’s external stimulation increased the incidence of mind wandering, rather than reducing the subjects’ ability to complete the task, it caused task performance to become slightly improved,” Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center professor Moshe Bar, who was part of the study, says. “The external stimulation actually enhanced the subjects’ cognitive capacity.”
Subjects whose minds wandered were more successful at achieving assigned tasks than those whose minds stayed singularly focused — meaning that it could help you be more productive.
Encouraging Creative Problem-Solving
Daydreams allow us to solve problems, internalize memories and see different perspectives. But how?
Mind wandering activates the brain’s default mode network (DMN), an interconnected network of regions in the brain that become active during wakeful rest. The DMN is active during daydreaming, imagination or when we’re otherwise “lost in thought.”
Research reported in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that activating the DMN ultimately boosts success in goal-oriented tasks by encouraging the brain to solve problems in new and creative ways.
In fact, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University Vinon Menon encourages people to take advantage of the creative and problem-solving benefits of the DMN.
“Mental downtime engages this brain system, allowing us to think about problems differently without a sense of urgency, link different thoughts that we might otherwise not have, reflect on our thoughts and actions and internalize memorable events in ways that enrich our inner lives,” Menon says. “Tap into your default mode for self-reflection, relaxation and, possibly, creativity. Our brains are designed that way. Daydreaming, mind wandering and self-reflection all naturally exist — so take advantage them.”
Exercise and Sleep for Ideas
One surefire way to engage the DMN is through aerobic exercise. Albert Einstein said he thought of E=MC2 while riding his bicycle.
Or if working out doesn’t work for you, Keith Richards claims he wrote “Satisfaction” in his sleep and recorded it when he woke up in the morning.
“From a neuroscientific standpoint, both of these creative breakthroughs took place in a DMN state and were later actualized by engaging the task-positive network,” Christopher Bergland, author of “The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss,” says. “Flipping between these two networks is the key to optimizing the function, structure and connectivity of your brain and achieving your goals with flying colors.”
You may not be Albert Einstein or Keith Richards, but you can still turn your daydreams into breakthroughs if you make sure to jot down or record them as soon as they happen.
Daydreaming and Mindfulness
In a sense, daydreaming is the opposite of mindfulness. While mindfulness focuses on the present, calming the stress center of the brain, daydreaming drifts along on a mental journey that’s far from the here and now.
Both practices can be advantageous, however, if you can maintain a level of meta-awareness (i.e., remain aware of your thoughts as your mind wanders). You essentially practice mindfulness and daydreaming at the same time. This way you can remember the flashes of brilliance that may come to you while your brain is in a creative state.
How to Anchor Drifting Ideas
Those brilliant ideas that come to us when our minds are wandering can be easy to forget. Keep pads of paper and a pen near the shower, in the car and on your nightstand to capture any new ideas and solutions that come to you as you daydream. If you’re having trouble getting your mind off things, try doing some aerobics or going for a stroll. Studies have shown that taking a walk stimulates creativity, memory and new ideas.
So give your brain a break. What innovations and original ideas can you conjure from the creative recesses of your mind? Allow your thoughts to wander and ramble regularly and you may be pleasantly surprised to find out.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you ever catch yourself daydreaming? Do you find that it’s detrimental to your productivity? Tell us about one brilliant idea that came to you while lost in thought.