Ever been pulled up for zoning out in the middle of a discussion? Ever found yourself sauntering down the aisles of a supermarket, lost in thought, unmindful of what you came in to buy? Or, are you a parent who is worried about your child who spends time idly daydreaming? Well, daydreaming may have received a lot of flak. However, science has shown that there is, in fact, a reason for your attention wavering at times and for all those mid-day dreams that carry you away to another world. What’s more… these goings on are actually very good for you. So, if you or your child indulge in daydreaming, fret not. But, first of all let us see why we daydream.
Why we daydream
Over the years, psychologists have found several ways to map the brain’s activities. Studies have shown that the brain is, in fact, more active, with more areas of the human CPU kicking in when not focussing on one particular task. So, when you ‘space out’ in the middle of a task, conversation or a meeting, your brain activity centres are actually lighting up like fireworks! Psychologists refer to daydreaming as a state of altered consciousness, which means that the mind is not completely tuned out of the outside world or task at hand. Contrarily, the mind is dividing its resources between the external consciousness and internal thoughts and emotions, which may be plans, dreams/aspirations, considerations and, of course, fantasies. Science has shown that when the brain is not required to devote its complete attention to one particular task, it automatically switches into an auto-pilot mode. This gives the person a chance to break away from the stress, pressures and fatigue of the real world. In fact, some of the earliest studies on the subject were done by Sigmund Freud, the famous neurologist, who theorised that daydreams are a means to honing creativity. What’s more, daydreams might also be a method for the mind to register and commit to memory sensory information like sights, sounds, tastes, textures, etc.
That’s right, not only is daydreaming something everyone does, it also changes from person to person! Almost six decades ago, Jerome L Singer did ground-breaking research on the subject of daydreaming and differentiated it into three broad categories (McMillan et al., 2013):
1) Positive constructive daydreaming: Indulging in pleasant, wistful imagery, which is free of conflict, and allowing the mind to restfully wander
2) Guilty-dysphoric/guilty fear-of-failure daydreaming: A mixture of negative emotions like anxiety, over-ambitiousness, aggression, guilt and fear leading to obsessive and anguishing thoughts
3) Poor attentional control: Neither being able to focus on the external tasks nor on the on-going thoughts, leading to restlessness and a distracted state
The difference between healthy and unhealthy daydreaming
As the results of Singer’s research suggest, positive constructive daydreaming is greatly beneficial and even essential to building skills such as creativity, problem-solving, powers of association, curiosity, planning, social skills and adaptability. These are the similar set of skills that are honed in children when they indulge in pretend play, read storybooks and engage in activities that encourage the imagination.
On the flip side, indulging in daydreams often can lead to a phenomenon called dissociation, wherein a person consciously avoids reality in favour of daydreaming. This behaviour is quite extreme and will manifest in clinical symptoms like disinterest in the outside world, bad social skills, and callousness. These, however, are extreme cases.
So, the next time you find your 7-year-old zoning out while you are giving her a weighty lecture, remember… she might benefit from it yet!!