#MindWandering: The Power of Downtime

Veneto,_Bartolomeo_-_Lucrezia_Borgia_(alleged),_detail_of_portraitDaydreaming…wasting time…selfish indulgence, or fountain of creativity?

WebMD says, quote:  “Daydreaming is looked upon negatively because it represents ‘non-doing’ in a society that emphasizes productivity,” says John McGrail, a clinical hypnotherapist in Los Angeles. “We are under constant pressure to do, achieve, produce, succeed.”

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, describes Daydreaming as “a short-term detachment from one’s immediate surroundings, during which a person’s contact with reality is blurred and partially substituted by a visionary fantasy, especially one of happy, pleasant thoughts, hopes or ambitions, imagined as coming to pass, and experienced while awake.”

Apparently we daydream less as we get older. I wonder, is this nature, or nurture?

What really happens when we allow ourselves to just sit and think about nothing in particular? What happens on a neurological level when we let our minds off the leash, to run free and unencumbered?

One interesting fact is that apparently, if we daydream about the past, we tend to forget what we were doing before the daydream started. This happens to me all the time.

But most people don’t ponder the past. “Daydreaming is often about anticipating the future, especially in a fantasy context,” noted Peter Delaney, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in the July 3, 2013 issue of National Geographic.

'A_Girl_Copying_a_Drawing'_by_Martin_Drolling,_Pushkin_Museum PD 100 via wikimedia commonsAnd according to the Daily Mail, Prof. Moshe Bar, of the Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center, said, “Over the last 15 or 20 years, scientists have shown that – unlike the localized neural activity associated with specific tasks – mind wandering involves the activation of a gigantic default network involving many parts of the brain.”

Also, I have just learned that daydreaming turns off parts of your brain. It’s true–our brain has an analytic part that helps us make reasoned decisions, and an empathetic part that allows us to relate to others. Researchers have discovered that when you are daydreaming, your mind naturally cycles through the different modes of thinking, analytic and empathetic. Apparently, during this time the analytic and empathetic parts of your brain tend to turn each other off.

Another intriguing thing I have only just found out is that the physiology of the brain itself, and not the “mind” controls our daydreams. Anthony Jack, a cognitive scientist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio says, “How we daydream and think depends on the brain’s structure. …(That) structure is constantly changing in small ways—as we learn new things the connections between nerve cells change.” (Read “Beyond the Brain” in National Geographic magazine.)

We have long known that creative people are often guilty of daydreaming, but researchers have shown that daydreaming makes you more creative.

“Many times the ‘dialogue’ that occurs when the daydreaming mind cycles through different parts of the brain accesses information that was dormant or out of reach,” notes Eugenio M. Rothe, a psychiatrist at Florida International University. “Likewise, the daydreaming mind may make an association between bits of information that the person had never considered in that particular way.”

Autumn_Landscape_With_Pond_And_Castle_Tower-Alfred_Glendening-1869According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a wandering mind can impart a distinct cognitive advantage.

This means that daydreaming is actually good for you. It boosts the brain, making our thought process more effective. Apparently letting the mind wander allows a kind of ‘default neural network’ to engage when our brain is at wakeful rest, as in meditation, rather than actively focused on the outside world. When we daydream, our brain is freed up to process tasks more effectively.

This is good to know, because as an author I spend an astounding amount of time daydreaming, and I would hate to be simply wasting time!

(This post was first published September 15, 2015 on Edgewise Words Inn)


Filed under Publishing, Uncategorized, writer

9 responses to “#MindWandering: The Power of Downtime

  1. In my profession, we take “mental health” days. We daydream, usually in parks or, just as often, in beds. We feel better after following this regimen. Often a new idea emerges from this exercise in indolence. Furthermore, one might likely pen a poem and call it, not surprisingly, “Ode to Indolence” or some such title.


  2. I totally agree… daydreaming is way underrated!


  3. This subject, daydreaming, reminds me of first grade. Staring out the classroom window at the playground, watching the colors brown, waiting desperately for the green to return, turning over stories in my mind. Didn’t dawn on me that I was actually supposed to listen to the droning teacher until I noticed I was having my hearing checked. Then I put two and two together. Ah, they think I can’t hear her.


    • @Scott–I never had to have my hearing checked, but I was often “lights on–no one at home” in class. In 5th grade I was disciplined and my mother was called to get me for bringing “Stranger in a Strange Land” to school to read during recess. My mom asked the teacher what the big deal was. The teacher said it was inappropriate for a child my age, and my mom’s response was that if I found the literature the school provided me with boring, I should be allowed to read something that intrigued me.


  4. What a nifty article, chock full of fascinating trivia. I’m not forgetful as I age, I just using my brain differently. And apparently my love of cheese can be liked to a heroin addiction . . . what other nuggets will the day hold for me, I wonder? *twinkle*