Has anyone ever told you to get your head out of the clouds? Most of my report cards in school, despite my record of A’s and B’s, mentioned my tendency to let my mind wander. My teachers often had to repeat my name a couple of times when trying to get my attention because I was always mentally somewhere else. It wasn’t that I was purposely trying to not pay attention in class; it was just that their lessons hardly compared with the vivid, vibrant world of my imagination, and the temptation of creating stories and other ideas inside my head was simply too much to resist.
Even though studies have shown that up to half of our awake time — at least 30% of it — is spent daydreaming, it is often viewed negatively. To be a dreamer is to be aloof and unrealistic. We’re seen as directionless and immature. Society emphasizes patience, focus, and determination; we’re told to always keep our eye on the prize. But is allowing our thoughts to freely explore actually wasteful?
“It’s very important for people to know what gives them meaning. But it’s hard for people to figure out if you’re not connecting with yourself and taking the time to just be introspective and daydream.” — Daniel Lubetzky
“Though it may be useful to cultivate practices for overcoming some of mind-wandering’s more disruptive consequences, we should not seek to eliminate it entirely, as it can offer some unique benefits when carried out at the appropriate times,” claims this study, which closely examines the pros and cons, as well as the importance of maintaining a balance in our cognition — a balance between focused thought, or mindfulness, and spontaneous thought, or mind-wandering.
The benefits of mindfulness are well-researched and well-documented; but what about the opposite? Is there no benefit of indulging in spontaneous thought? According to many studies, there is. Here are some research-supported benefits of losing yourself in your thoughts from time to time.
- Problem solving and innovation. Divergent thinking, or the ability to come up with novel ideas, is enhanced by letting your mind drift away here and there. “Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems,” this study concluded, which tested participants’ divergent thinking skills after engaging in demanding and focused tasks, simple and unrelated tasks, taking a rest period, or having no rest period at all. Mind-wandering is linked to an increase in this type of thinking — and therefore, the ability to come up with fresh, new ways to solve our problems.
- Inspiration and fueling creativity. In order to “think outside the box,” we must be open to any and all ideas that surface in our minds. When we are too focused on a specific idea or thought, we automatically block out everything we deem irrelevant. This relates to my previous point as well, but here, I’d like to focus more on the importance of specifically not suppressing the random thoughts that surface in our mind. In neuroscience, the DMN, or Default Mode Network, is the network areas in the brain that interact with each other, and play a central role in “internal mentation”, or “the introspective and adaptive mental activities in which humans spontaneously and deliberately engage in everyday.” Increased connectivity between the inferior prefrontal cortex of the brain and the default mode network is directly linked to heightened creativity.
- Relieving boredom. This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of letting your mind wander. When taking a true rest break is impossible, taking a brief mental one may be the next best solution. Whether it is because you’re trying to work through something that is simply a boring task in general, or the task has become boring because you’ve been at it too long or doing it too frequently, taking a few minutes to let your attention drift away may help. “The ability of our minds to disengage from the current external environment and to engage in an alternative train of thought may have evolved in part to allow us to overcome tedium and disinterest without overtly abandoning a necessary task,” studies have shown. The next time you feel that dreaded ennui taking over, try to think of something interesting, and let your mind lead you down whatever path it decides to take.
- Autobiographical planning. The abilities to reason, plan, and learn are all are evolutionary traits essential to what it means to be human, and they are all associated with mind-wandering. If we were only able to focus on what is directly in front of us, we wouldn’t be able to construct the lofty dreams and ambitions we all have. Personally relevant goals for our future keep us motivated, and reaching them keeps us fulfilled. One study confirms that spontaneous thought is mainly future-focused and that it can “enable prospective cognitive operations that are likely to be useful to the individual as they navigate through their daily lives.” In other words, while it can be distracting, it can also be very useful.
- Engaging in meta-cognition. This is the ability to think about your own thoughts, or be aware of your own awareness. In order to engage in mind-wandering, you must be capable of two separate cognitive activities: perceptual decoupling, or disengaging from what is being directly perceived in the present, and the “ability to take explicit note of the current contents of consciousness”, also known as meta-awareness, or meta-cognition. Although mindfulness, or focusing completely on the present and what you directly perceive, is a strong exercise to practice for strengthening meta-cognition skills, the opposite is just as beneficial, but in a different way.
Like most things, there are various real benefits to mind-wandering, as long as it is kept in check. We don’t want to endanger ourselves because we’re distracted, or let our aimless thoughts affect our performance of important tasks — but we also mustn’t neglect our imagination and intuition. Many of our higher-order thinking capabilities are related to our ability to relinquish control over our thoughts and explore the abstract.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
If you have a tendency to be in a world of your own like I do, you most likely also have heard about it your entire life. It can be a little annoying — but just remember that there are many advantages of having a wandering mind, no matter how much they try make you settle down.