Back To Blog > Do We Benefit from Daydreaming and Mind-Wandering?

This post is by Monica Velici of Sparta Health

When reading a book, driving to work, or performing other common daily tasks, our mind frequently drifts away from our current activity and focuses on internal thoughts and images that are unrelated to the present situation (e.g., remembrances of the past or thoughts about future events). This particular kind of thought is often referred to as mind-wandering and daydreaming. Their content is not the direct reflection of current sensory input and is unrelated to the task being performed at the moment of their occurrence (Stawarczyk et al., 2011a,b). Experience sampling studies have shown that mind-wandering or daydreaming are an ubiquitous phenomenon experienced by virtually everyone (Singer and McCraven, 1961), and covers 30–50% of our daily thinking time (Kane et al., 2007; Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010).

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 do not 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 was having that lottery daydream while drilling your teeth?

The Answer

The frequent occurrence of daydreaming in daily life has led to the suggestion that these thoughts serve a purpose in terms of ongoing cognitive processes (Smallwood and Schooler, 2006). Research focusing on the content of daydreaming and mind-wandering has demonstrated that most of these thoughts are self-related (Baird et al., 2011; Smallwood et al., 2011), temporally oriented toward the future (Smallwood et al., 2009b), and directed toward planning and preparing for impending events (Baird et al., 2011; Stawarczyk et al., 2011a). It has therefore been proposed that daydreaming and mind-wandering play an important role in the processing of personal goals and concerns (Smallwood and Schooler, 2006; Klinger, 2009). Daydreaming and mind-wandering may allow us to manipulate and organise internal information, to solve problems that require computation over long periods of time, and to create effective plans governing our future behaviours consistent with our personal aims and aspirations (Binder et al., 1999).

On the other hand, it has been suggested that daydreaming makes us unhappy. This is because we think about the past or future, rather than the present and what is around us. Based on the idea that individuals find happiness in “living the moment”, a paper published in the Science journal determined that a “wandering mind is an unhappy mind” (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010).

However, the idea of an unhappy mind was contradicted by a study published in the Neuropsychological Journal. 100 participants consented to undergo an MRI brain scan aimed at investigating brain patterns during mind-wandering. Participants were presented and asked to focus their view on a dull, stationary point for five minutes; they were then given questionnaires on how much their mind usually wandered, and tests on intellectual and creative ability. Those participants who stated their minds wandered the most, scored higher on intellectual and creative ability tests, but also the MRI scans showed that that their brain systems were more efficient at mind-wandering.

Being efficient at mind-wandering essentially means being able to zone in and out of tasks or conversations and then naturally return back in without missing any important steps or points. However, there is a difference between mind-wandering and daydreaming. Mind-wandering is where you think of things unrelated to the task you are performing, whereas daydreaming is when, for example, you are on a train with nothing to do, and you put your headphones on and just look out of the window, detaching yourself from the world around you.

Christine Godwin, the lead author of a study from the School of Psychology at Georgia Institute of Technology, states that if you are concentrating on hard tasks, your performance will drop if your mind wanders. However, if the task is easy and not cognitively demanding, individuals who have high cognitive abilities can allow their minds to wander without affecting their performance. These individuals might be thinking of upcoming goals, or problem-solving their lives. Some researchers believe that daydreaming and mind-wandering serve a useful function in giving us insights we would not get from being fully in the moment.

About Monica Velici

Monica joined Sparta Health in February 2020 as part of the rehabilitation service support team. She has a degree in Psychology, an MSc in Clinical Neurodevelopmental Sciences, and a keen interest in dementia and mental health. Monica aims to become a fully accredited therapist.

References

Baird, B., Smallwood, J., and Schooler, J. W. (2011). Back to the future: autobiographical planning and the functionality of mind-wandering. Conscious. Cogn. 20, 1604–1611.

Binder, J. R., Frost, J. A., Hammeke, T. A., Bellgowan, P. S., Rao, S. M., and Cox, R. W. (1999). Conceptual processing during the conscious resting state. A functional MRI study. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 11, 80–95.

Kane, M. J., Brown, L. H., Mcvay, J. C., Silvia, P. J., Myin-Germeys, I., and Kwapil, T. R. (2007). For whom the mind wanders, and when: an experience-sampling study of working memory and executive control in daily life. Psychol. Sci. 18, 614–621.

Killingsworth, M. A., and Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science 330, 932.

Klinger, E. (2009). “Daydreaming and fantasizing: thought flow and motivation,” in Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, eds K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein, and J. A. Suhr (New York, NY: Psychology Press), 225–239.

Singer, J. L., and McCraven, V. G. (1961). Some characteristics of adult daydreaming. J. Psychol. 51, 151–164.

Smallwood, J., and Schooler, J. W. (2006). The restless mind. Psychol. Bull. 132, 946–958.

Smallwood, J., Nind, L., and O’Connor, R. C. (2009b). When is your head at? An exploration of the factors associated with the temporal focus of the wandering mind. Conscious. Cogn. 18, 118–125.

Smallwood, J., Schooler, J. W., Turk, D. J., Cunningham, S. J., Burns, P., and Macrae, C. N. (2011). Self-reflection and the temporal focus of the wandering mind. Conscious. Cogn. 20, 1120–1126.

Stawarczyk, D., Majerus, S., Maj, M., Van der Linden, M., and D’Argembeau, A. (2011a). Mind-wandering: phenomenology and function as assessed with a novel experience sampling method. Acta Psychol. (Amst.) 136, 370–381.

Stawarczyk, D., Majerus, S., Maquet, P., and D’Argembeau, A. (2011b). Neural correlates of ongoing conscious experience: both task-unrelatedness and stimulus-independence are related to default network activity. PLoS ONE 6, e16997. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016997

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