Why Do We Daydream, and Is It Good or Bad For Us?

Everyone daydreams. But exactly WHY do we daydream, and is it good or bad for us? Laura Sciarpelletti takes a look at what science has to say about it...

Everything starts as somebody's daydream. ~ Larry Niven Click To Tweet

In a society pushed by the expectation of productivity, daydreaming tends to have a negative reputation. Anyone who watched after school specials as a child remembers the “weird kid” being chastised for daydreaming—all of his or her peers laughing after the teacher snaps them out of it.

Perhaps this is why the more athletically inclined children had such merit in these films—they were active, ‘in-the-now’ children with outgoing personalities. But science has shown us that everyone daydreams, and it is a healthy thing to do. . . in moderation.

Classic Canadian literary character Anne of Green Gables was chastised for reading too much and daydreaming about frivolous things like flowers, poetic heroines and dashing knights. But Anne was driven by these daydreams, and her life reflected that ambition; this was brought on by a dominating and desperate desire to make her daydreams a reality. And that is when daydreaming is a good thing—when the result of these fantasies is an unquenchable thirst for success.

The alternative is using this time only as an escape, and allowing it to get in the way of productivity, while also not retaining any inspiration to better your life.

So what is daydreaming?

According to Psychology Today, William James—who is credited with being the founder of American psychology—wrote:

“When absorbed in intellectual attention we become so inattentive to outer things as to be ‘absent-minded,’ ‘abstracted,’ or ‘distraits.’ All revery or concentrated meditation is apt to throw us into this state that transient lapses in the control of attention may lead to a shift in attention from the external world to internal mentation.”

What scientists have discovered since James’ research is that the brain has a “default network,” and while we are active the network turns itself on and creates its own stimulation. This is called “stimulus independent thought,” and this is what makes up our daydreams.

In short, it is a natural occurrence in everyone, although some are more susceptible to it than others.

Is it good or bad for you?

For some people, daydreaming is a luxury. I used to look forward all day to those minutes before I fell asleep where I could imagine another reality.

But for others, daydreaming is a distraction from “the real world,” and that is why daydreaming too much is looked down on. Maybe the unhappy elements in your life outweigh the happy, so you fall into a pillow of make believe.

In order to differentiate, ask yourself the following:

  • Am I being productive?
  • Is this daydreaming helping or hindering me?
  • Am I feeling an impulse to act on these daydreams? If so, is this a positive or negative thing?
  • If I think it might help to make these daydreams a reality, what can I make happen in the short term, and what can I make happen in the long-term?
  • In these daydreams, do I exhibit personality traits that are kinder and healthier than the ones I exhibit in daily life? If so, what changes can I make to project them onto my reality?

When I was young, I grew up in a fairly unfriendly home-life environment. This made daydreaming something to look forward to. I would even lie on my bed in the middle of the day, close my eyes, and daydream for an hour or so before doing my homework.

This kind of escape is okay, as long as you are aware that wishful thinking can damage your drive to reach goals. Daydreaming is kind of the opposite of worrying. It can help arm us with positive images of the success we could achieve, but it fails to show us the obstacles we’ll undoubtedly encounter along the way. When we daydream, we only see the result, not the journey, and that dissociation can be unhealthy. It can lead to a decrease of motivation because we expect instant change and are instead met by ‘problems’.

According to The Huffington Post, in an article about creative minds, New York University psychologist Barry Kaufman says that daydreaming helps us let go of the present:

“It’s smart to question whether we should always be living in the moment,” says Kaufman. “The latest research on imagination and creativity shows that if we’re always in the moment, we’re going to miss out on important connections between our own inner mind-wandering thoughts and the outside world. Creativity lies in that intersection between our outer world and our inner world.”

Many artists and actors attribute their lucrative creativity to daydreaming—“I don’t remember my dreams too much,” director David lynch once said. “I hardly have ever gotten ideas from nighttime dreams. But I love daydreaming and dream logic and the way dreams go.”

This is a case of someone using a typical human function to their advantage by making it into a productive daily mechanism. “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored,” author Neil Gaiman was once quoted saying. “You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

Keeping a dream journal

In the summer of 2013 I briefly dated a man who was studying psychology at university. I was instantly attracted to his passion for the subject, that had actually begun as early as middle school. He had dedicated his life to knowing absolutely everything about his field of choice, and even applied it to his daily life when problem-solving was needed.

Shortly after I met him, I got into a biking accident wherein I split my chin open—after multiple stitches and a full afternoon in the hospital, I was told by my doctor to do absolutely nothing that night—no TV, texting or reading—in case I had a concussion. So for the first time in a long time, I checked into my daydream world.

The man I had been seeing had spoken enthusiastically about “brain wave entertainment” and keeping a dream journal since I had known him, and I decided to try these things while awake.

What followed was a meditation sequence that sent me in-between daydreams and actual dreams. The fluidity was inspiring and fascinating, and it occurred to me that our daydreams were just as fascinating as our dreams while sleeping.

Keeping record of how often you have certain daydreams and their achievability levels can really help inspire a change.

Psychological Benefits

According to the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, daydreaming is often looked down upon. Los Angeles clinical hypnotherapist John McGrail said:

“Daydreaming is looked upon negatively because it represents ‘non-doing’ in a society that emphasizes productivity. . .  Sigmund Freud even believed that fantasies were the creations of the unfulfilled, and that daydreaming and fantasy were early signs of mental illness.”

But as we have certainly come to understand in the years since, Freud’s theories—while brilliant—have been mostly disproven.

As mentioned above, daydreaming is both a normal human function as well as a largely beneficial one. An article in The New Yorker claims that humans are, in fact, a “daydreaming species.”

The article quotes a study by Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth: “People let their minds wander forty-seven per cent of the time they are awake. At first glance, such data seems like a confirmation of our inherent laziness. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as useless—the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think.”

However, science has proven that this mind-wandering actually helps us explore what our brain has to offer; it’s essential to our cognitive growth. 

So, as with nearly everything, it’s all about moderation. Take a break, relax, let that mind wander — you never know what may come up!

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