Although there are many anecdotal stories of breakthroughs resulting from daydreams – Einstein, for instance, was notorious for his wandering mind – daydreaming itself is usually cast in a negative light. Children in school are encouraged to stop daydreaming and “focus,” and wandering minds are often cited as a leading cause of traffic accidents. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think. It’s a sign of procrastination, not productivity, something to be put away with your flip-flops and hammock as summer draws to a close.

In recent years, however, scientists have begun to see the act of daydreaming very differently. They’ve demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind – so fundamental, in fact, that it’s often referred to as our “default” mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings – such as the message of a church sermon – the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we’re able to imagine things that don’t actually exist, like sticky yellow bookmarks.

“If your mind didn’t wander, then you’d be largely shackled to whatever you are doing right now,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But instead you can engage in mental time travel and other kinds of simulation. During a daydream, your thoughts are really unbounded.”

The ability to think abstractly that flourishes during daydreams also has important social benefits. Mostly, what we daydream about is each other, as the mind retrieves memories, contemplates “what if” scenarios, and thinks about how it should behave in the future. In this sense, the content of daydreams often resembles a soap opera, with people reflecting on social interactions both real and make-believe. We can leave behind the world as it is and start imagining the world as it might be, if only we hadn’t lost our temper, or had superpowers, or were sipping a daiquiri on a Caribbean beach. It is this ability to tune out the present moment and contemplate the make-believe that separates the human mind from every other.

“Daydreaming builds on this fundamental capacity people have for being able to project themselves into imaginary situations, like the future,” Malia Mason, a neuroscientist at Columbia, says. “Without that skill, we’d be pretty limited creatures.”

Jonah Lehrer
Boston Globe