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Daydreaming is a Sign of Productivity, Not Procrastination

May 19, 2009


Never stop wandering.

The irony does not escape me that the day after I graduate from college, a new PNAS study is released stating that mind-wandering is actually beneficial to brain activity. I could have definitely used this excuse for the first 22 years of my academic career or when trying to convince my parents that “off the beaten path” does not necessarily mean “off the rails.”  Alas, I’ve got at least 30 years of the work world ahead of me – so I guess for me and you both, research showing the daydreaming and mind-wandering are actually beneficial to your health comes better late than never.

Scientists Kalina Christoff of UBC and Jonathon Schooler of UCSB both created a project based on “experience sampling” to capture daydreaming through the use of an fMRI machine. Participants in the study were given an extremely tedious task to complete and when their minds began to wander, fluctuations in their brain activity were monitored. The results show that mind-wandering actually institutes a unique mental state that allows for other parts of your brain to work in more tight-knit cooperation, thus making you more productive. This level of productivity is most pronounced when you are not even aware that you are daydreaming. Not bad.

Jonah Lehrer is an important contributer to the daydreaming=productivity scene. On his blog, he notes that daydreaming actually helps us with problem-solving because were are allowed to hypothesize “what-ifs” and engage to “mental time travel” in search of solutions. Lehrer condemns the association of procrastination and daydreaming with laziness, arguing that abstract thought is often the way that many great inventions are made. (He cites the Minnesota born Post-It note as an example).  “The hard part is maintaining enough awareness to catch your creative insight when it happens [and change it into something productive]”, he states.

The PNAS study also reflected that while for years, daydreaming was thought to be a “resting state” and a distraction to our day-to-day thoughts and tasks, it is actually one of the more predominant and productive modes of the human mind. This makes me feel a bit better about the time I just spent staring out the window while trying to write this blog. Sigh.

Even more intriguing – the brain doesn’t stop at daydreaming either. Take a look at Jill Bolte Taylor’s story if you really want to push your boundaries. She is a brain scientist who was able to experience her own stroke and live to tell about it. Her talk gets a little kooky when she attempts to describe what it’s like to no longer be able to define the boundaries of her own human body and her subsequent time spent disconnected from her left brain chatter, a state of mind which she refers to as “la-la-land,” but her insights are incredibly valuable. There is still so much we don’t know about the brain so it’s silly we’ve attached a stigma to daydreaming.  It’s ability to  unwittingly spark imagination and innovation on an abstract plain makes daydreaming one of our most crucial tools for creativity.

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