Often derided and the topic of many a teacher’s report card comment daydreaming, or mind-wandering, is generally seen as an undesirable activity, especially among school-age children from whom the education system demands unrelenting focus. “Monica likes to daydream,” notes home to my Mom would read. “I do wonder what she is thinking about.” And yet, on average, we daydream nearly 47% of our waking hours. If our brain spends nearly half of our awake time doing it, there is probably a good reason why.
The term “daydreaming” was coined by Julien Varendonck in 1921 in his book The Psychology of Day-Dreams (with a foreword by Sigmund Freud, so sort-of a big deal). While Varendonck and Freud saw benefits to daydreaming, the past 20 years have yielded research that portrays daydreaming as “a cognitive control failure,” with some researchers out of Harvard recently declaring “a wandering mind is not a happy mind.” An exception to that opinion was one held by the late eminent psychologist Jerome Singer, who spent most of his professional life researching daydreaming (he preferred the term to “mind-wandering”). Singer identified three types of daydreaming, and while two can have negative impacts, one is quite beneficial.
The first is “guilty dysphoric” or fear-of-the-future daydreaming, when we either think about the past, perseverating on a negative experience (like reliving a tough phone call over and over), or we catastrophize the future (like imagining failing spectacularly at an upcoming work presentation). Then there is “poor attentional control,” where a person struggles to focus on a particular thought or task, particularly troublesome for those with attention deficits. These two kinds of daydreaming don’t have identifiable benefits. But the third type, “positive constructive daydreaming (PCD),” where we cast our mind forward and imagine future possibilities in a creative, positive way, can be quite beneficial. Helpful for planning and creativity, PCD is the bridge that links our internal observations with the forecasting required for future exploration.
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Philosophers have long stressed the importance of the type of inner reflection associated with PCD. Most of the enlightenment philosophers like Diderot, Locke, and Kant believed it was inward reflection, not external drivers, that empowered humanity to direct their own lives and lead themselves. In his 1690 work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke ponders the term “consciousness,” describing it as the “perception of what passes in a man’s own mind.” For Locke, consciousness was “inseparable from thinking” and represented an integral awareness of the working of our own mind. To him, open observation of our internal consciousness paved the way for curious exploration of our external world.
The part of our brain most often associated with daydreaming is called the “default mode network” (DMN). The term “default mode” refers to the part of our brain associated with our resting state and is responsible for our ability to reflect on our own consciousness and internal narrative. The DMN is an anti-correlational system active during contemplation like daydreaming and quiet when our working memory becomes engaged. The DMN is also something of a hub, with lots of connections running through it that impact a host of other activity patterns. But more interesting and somewhat mysterious, the DMN is responsible for much of our abstract conceptual thought—the introspective, self-referential kind that separates us from primates—and it recalls and constructs social scenarios to help us make meaning of our life.
While the DMN can become disrupted during cognitive decline, such as dementia, PCD can actually thicken the cerebral cortex, or what’s known as our brain’s gray matter, the thinning of which is associated with the cognitive decline of aging. While this link isn’t fully understood yet, we know that a well-functioning default mode network—where we cast our mind’s eye forward in time or reflect on our past experience (as in positive constructive daydreaming)—plays a pivotal role in our healthy mental functioning, in areas like memory consolidation, planning, and impulse control.
Despite the benefits, we are conditioning daydreaming out of our kids—and in turn, out of our adult lives as well. Daydreaming is strongly discouraged in the majority of traditional learning environments, Most schools dwell so much on an assumption of high attentional demand that they’ve failed to balance the potential benefit of PCD’s “constructive internal reflection.” When we consider that daydreaming is a hallmark of ADD/ADHD, one has to question if neurodivergent children are being labeled as “underachievers” or “troublemakers” for simply engaging in an activity we all do with frequency, but one that doesn’t fit within the rigid strictures of the modern education system.
Rather than demonizing daydreaming, we should protect it, nurture it, honor it—if not for the raft of physiological and psychological benefits, then for the potential societal benefits. People who daydream are more reflective, have a deeper sense of compassion, and show more moral decision-making. And ultimately, children who are more reflective, compassionate, and moral grow up to be the adults who build a more just society.