The Amazing Benefits of Daydreaming on the Mind
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As a young kid, I was asked by a psychologist, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Without skipping a beat, I replied, "I have this reoccurring dream of one day being a psychologist and giving lots of talks."
By age 3, I had had 21 ear infections, which developed into an auditory learning disability that made it very difficult for me to process speech in real time. I always felt a step or two behind the rest of the kids in the classroom. As a result, I retreated into my own inner world.
I would come home and write stories about time travel, imagine soap opera plotlines, and visualize scenarios about a future in which I was a successful psychologist. These early daydreams offered me a much-needed escape from the realities at school, where I was bullied by students and accorded low expectations from teachers. But no one had access to my most private mind, full of plans for my future and dreams of a different world. To students and teachers alike, however, my mental retreat from school provided only further evidence of my learning disability.
These early experiences made me recognize the power of daydreaming, the capacity to overcome the constraints of the present and travel to distant places and epochs all in the mind—our self-generated inner stream of images, memories, fantasies, and interior monologues. They arise on their own, not from perception. William James, the founder of American psychology, once quipped when accused of being absent-minded that he was really present-minded to his own thoughts.
Unfortunately, history hasn't been so kind to daydreaming. Freud believed daydreamers were infantile and neurotic. In the 1960s, psychology textbooks warned teachers that students who daydreamed were headed for psychosis. Even today, there is a disproportionate focus among scientists on the costs of daydreaming. In a recent study, two prominent psychologists proclaimed that "a wandering mind is an unhappy mind."
More than 50 years ago, pioneering research led by Yale's Jerome L. Singer established that daydreaming is widespread and a normal aspect of human experience. Singer found that a major swath of society consists of "happy daydreamers"—people who enjoy vivid imagery and fantasy. They use daydreaming for plotting out their future. These daydreamers "simply value and enjoy their private experiences, are willing to risk wasting a certain amount of time on them, but also can apparently use them for effective planning and for self-amusement during periods of monotonous task activity or boredom," Singer reported. He called this "positive-constructive daydreaming."
The classic findings are, however, often ignored, and daydreaming is dismissed as a useless mental activity by parents, teachers, managers, and cognitive scientists alike. From an evolutionary perspective, their view makes no sense. Why would roughly half of our waking hours be spent in an activity that could potentially compromise survival, if not for some purpose?
From Instagram to Xboxes, board meetings to classroom lectures, we live in an age when the external environment makes compelling and competing demands for our attention. Rarely are people given the time to reflect, imagine, or daydream. As Singer noted "Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment."
Yet by rejiggering the balance of attention to accommodate more self-generated thought, we may actually get far closer to realizing the dreams we most want for ourselves. The human capacity for mental time travel, it turns out, gives us enormous possibilities for realizing our deepest desires and strivings.