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The importance of daydreaming

Psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have traditionally considered daydreaming as a waste of mental discipline, which, in pathological cases, could lead to psychosis. Recent findings, however, have consistently shown that having a distracted mind or being addicted to daydreaming not only encourages creativity but also allows for overcoming crisis situations with high levels of success. Modern imaging technologies corroborate this new vision of daydreaming.

Xavier Pujol Gebellí | 2 July 2010

Photo: ñoña cachilupi
There are images that, while not being stereotypical, cease to be eloquent: how many times we have happened to pass someone reading a book and in our minds images arise that have nothing to do with the text; or, we are at a conference and, regardless of how interesting it may be, we are distracted by the person sitting next to us. Does that mean that we are simply scatterbrained and unable to maintain our concentration? Any expert a few years ago would have answered yes. Not only that, he or she would have consistently warned us that systematically proceeding in that manner or continuing to fantasize with our eyes open on a recurring basis could be a symptom of an obsessive disorder or even the prelude to more serious mental illnesses such as neurosis or psychosis. Neuroscientists, supported by imaging technologies, would perhaps have added that daydreaming interferes with other, “more important” mental functions.

However, recent findings, also supported by imaging technologies, put these prior theses into question. Contrary to popular thought, daydreams have been found to have a productive facet, especially in areas related to creativity and conflict resolution.

Common phenomenon

Although the terms are somewhat confusing, in the vast territory of daydreams there is room for the so-called “wandering mind,” consisting in letting one’s thoughts just ramble, often disjointedly, and flow freely while you are performing some activity. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood, both of the University of California at Santa Barbara in the U.S., estimated that the human mind falls into that stage neither more nor less than 30% of the time. In an article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS), these two researchers tell how, by nuclear magnetic resonance techniques, they were able to observe the activation of two brain areas that had previously been considered functionally opposed. If both areas are activated simultaneously, the authors suggest, it could perhaps indicate that the state of the mind wandering evokes a unique mental state that allows two opposing brain systems to work cooperatively.

What value could this unique neural mechanism have? Although it is not clear, it might have to do with the personal agenda of each individual. Even when one is focused on a precise activity that requires a degree of concentration, like going to a conference, the fact that someone is distracted by one’s neighbor possibly denotes that he or she has some pending issue to resolve. This could be anything from finding a life partner to settling accounts with someone. The person sitting nearby just reminds you that there is a pending case which is reached by wandering through a mental maze.

These cases of association of seemingly unrelated ideas can help solve a conflict or provide an unexpected clue or a solution to a problem, a process which has a lot to do with creativity.
The figures of Arthur Fry and Albert Einstein are often used to illustrate how this common phenomenon is connected to creativity. The first created the popular post-it note for universal use in any office. The second formulated the theory of relativity among many other advances in physics. Their most outstanding creations emerged, as they themselves publicly acknowledged, by letting their minds wander after being in situations that required a certain obligation. Fry thought of his sticky notepad during the Sunday sermon of the Presbyterian church to which he went, while Einstein came up with his theories that changes physics in any of the many “boring meetings” which he had to attend.

Both sides of brain

In some ways it could be said that there are two brains, or maybe two fully differentiated cortical areas associated with concentration. One of them could be defined as the “executive neural network,” which is activated when someone is clearly focused on a particular activity. The second neural network would be the reverse, which is activated when the mind enters a state of wandering.

Traditionally, both networks had been identified as conflicting, so only when the executive was at rest was the “wandering” part able to be activated. The first suspicion that this was not so was provoked by brain imaging technology. Its publication in Science gave a scientific backing to a theory that until then was based more on the theorizing about lore and popular wisdom than on empirical evidence.

LET CHILDREN GET BOREDThe connection between the executive brain and the wandering brain has opened up possibilities of new paradigms in recent years. One, championed by a growing sector in education, advocates the benefits of the wandering mind or daydreaming as a way to encourage the creative use of the mind. Its advocates argue that children who spend hours and hours in front of a television screen or a console, an activity that captures their attention and require a certain degree of concentration, have their imagination limited, something which is relatively obvious. But these findings about the importance of the wandering mind open the door to the design and promotion of activities designed to associate seemingly unrelated ideas or to let one’s imagination run free, even if, or more correctly, precisely because these activities may seem boring.



Mo 07/07/2010
Quan ho he llegit, és el primer que he pensat. La gent només està somiant un 30 % del temps??? I q carai fan el 70 % restant?? Genial l´article!

jorge 07/07/2010
30%?? Conec a una persona que esta un 70% i crec que em quedo curt. D'això en diem "estar integrant", qui sap, igual algun dia ens sorprèn i unifica la teoria quàntica i la de la relativitat. Somiar és bó, sigui quan sigui.

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