Daydreaming tends to be thought of as a deliciously idle way to while away time; it is a pursuit of the absent-minded and ditsy among us.
A new study however has found that daydreaming may be a sign that you’re smart.
Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology used MRIs to scan the brain patterns of 100 participants while they stared at a fixed point for five minutes.
The participants then completed tasks measuring creative and cognitive ability and completed questionnaires about how often they daydreamed each day.
Those whose minds wandered more scored more highly on the creative and intellectual tests as well as having more efficient brain patterns.
“People with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering,” says co-author, associate psychology professor Eric Schumacher.
“People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad,” adds co-author, Christine Godwin. “You try to pay attention and you can’t. Our data is consistent with the idea that this isn’t always true.”
Muireann Irish is a senior research officer at Neuroscience Research Australia.
She says that while daydreaming has had a “bad reputation”, a “huge explosion” of research into brain function over the last decade has prompted a shift in attitude.
“When we’re daydreaming or it looks like we’re being idle our brain is very much hard at work,” Irish says. “More and more researchers are understanding the adaptive nature of mind-wandering and why we have evolved to have this really complex capacity.
“It turns out that many of the brain regions that support this capacity of mind wandering are also implicated to enable us to remember the past, to project ourselves forward to think ahead and plan, and to understand and appreciate the perspectives of other people.”
When we daydream, she says, this is what we’re doing; we’re reminiscing or imagining the future or thinking about interactions with others.
“All of those capacities enable us to navigate our daily lives in a more successful way.”
Daydreaming, Irish adds, serves a different function to dreaming while we’re asleep.
“Sometimes, when we’re mind wandering we’re constrained by what we know couldn’t possibly happen whereas when we’re night dreaming all the constraints are gone and we can have the most fanciful and outlandish dreams,” she says.
It has been suggested that when we dream at night, we are filtering the experiences of the day.
“We know that we consolidate information and we lay it down into long-term memories when we sleep… dreaming could be a way of tuning out the information that we don’t actually need,” Irish says, adding scientists “still don’t fully know” the purpose of dreams.
Daydreaming, on the other hand, is a “more purposeful” tool to actively withdraw ourselves from the present moment.
“If we’re at a meeting that’s not very stimulating we can decide to take ourselves away to somewhere that may be more enjoyable or pleasurable at that given moment,” she says.
While the ability to pay attention is important when we’re learning something and engaging with others, Schumacher and Godwin say daydreaming signals efficiency and intelligence when it is used in an appropriate manner, recognising when it is OK to tune in and tune out.
Irish added that the content of the daydreaming is also important.
“So we know that in healthy individuals, mind wandering can be incredibly constructive so it gives rise to creativity – constructs and their associations loosen so we can come up with much more innovative and insightful ideas to problems that labouring away or trying to focus on would never have achieved,” she says.
Among people suffering depression or anxiety however, daydreaming can involve ruminating on negative events that have happened or fixating on what might go wrong in the future.
“Individuals can get stuck in this negative spiral and it can be very hard to break these cycles of thought,” Irish says. “It’s really the content of the mind wandering that determines whether it’s adaptive or maladaptive.”
She is cautious about the findings of the new study, pointing out that they are correlative not causal, and that if someone’s mind doesn’t wander a lot it does not mean they’re not as intelligent.
That said she believes daydreaming and making time to allow our imaginations to roam freely is healthy for the developing mind and for adults alike.
“We spend so much time being bombarded by information and we’re constantly on our devices and we rarely take time to sit back and let our minds take flight,” says Irish, who has been working with people suffering dementia, who have lost the ability to daydream.
“You see how devastating the loss of this capacity is,” she says. “Our patients find it hard to take themselves away from the present moment to daydream, to reminisce or to think about the future.
“I think something we should all be trying to do more – it’s using a brain network that is highly sophisticated and has evolved for very specific reasons and can give rise to creative endeavours and amazing ingenuity that we wouldn’t achieve if we spent all of our time focused or labouring on certain tasks – it’s all a matter of balance.”