We are all familiar with the wave of a friend’s hand in front of our face or the voice of our teacher aggravatingly urging us to pay attention. Daydreaming is often viewed as a useless distraction, something clouding the ability to concentrate on a friend’s story or teacher’s lesson. But is it really?
Daydreaming is one of the most common things humans do. According to psychologists, up to half of a person’s mental activity is spent on daydreams. They help realize goals, and reveal innermost hopes, desires and fears. Different people have different types of daydreams and they tend to confirm what people already know about themselves, rather than providing new information.
Phycologists encourage people to pay attention to them because daydreaming is a valuable self-to-self channel of communication. Daydreams help to optimize brain power, and are an essential resource for coping with life. What a person dreams about really all depends on what is swirling around in the mind.
Daydreaming enhances the memory and in turn increases one’s level of organization. People dream about what needs to be completed in one’s life’s agenda constantly, and by doing so remember to-do lists subconsciously. Daydreams serve as a reminder of what’s coming up, enable the mind to rehearse new situations, plan the future, and review past experiences so they can be learned from.
Empathy and the ability to connect with others is also enhanced through daydreaming. Research suggests that there may be a link between memory, imagination, and the ability to be empathetic. Imagining a scenario or picturing something that hasn’t actually been experienced may make it easier to understand what someone else is going through.
Sometimes the daydream itself can be therapeutic. Dreams have the ability to relax or entertain, and being able to revisit a daydream that makes one feel safe or happy can help to endure a difficult situation in reality. Daydreaming, like playing a film in one’s head, allows a person to step back from reality, which can sometimes be just what is needed to get back on track and focused.
Daydreaming allows the mind to come up with ideas and modify them like a computer. Research by psychologists Steven Lynn and Judith Rhue has found that heavy daydreamers are no less successful or well-adjusted than the less fantasy-prone. Frequent dreamers, in fact, may have a slight creative edge over others, as non-directed thinking might lead to tangible, creative outcomes.
An experiment published in Psychological Science by researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science suggests that a wandering mind relates with a higher degree of what is referred to as working memory.
Scientists define this type of memory as the brain’s ability to retain and recall information. In the study, the researchers examined the relationship between peoples’ working memory capacity and their likeliness to daydream. Daydreamers’ minds wander because they have too much extra capacity to merely concentrate on the task at hand.
“Our results suggest that the sorts of planning that people do quite often in daily life—when they’re on the bus, when they’re cycling to work, when they’re in the shower—are probably supported by working memory,” Smallwood, a phsychologist working on the project, said. “Their brains are trying to allocate resources to the most pressing problems.”
While some daydream more than others, this doesn’t necessarily indicate a personality that’s detached from reality.