Go ahead, daydream

Radhika Sivadi

3 min read ·


Eureka! New scientific research reveals the mind-opening benefits of letting your thoughts wander.

Entrepreneurs might be especially focused on productivity, but despite your best efforts to concentrate on your business, you're probably not awfully consistent at it. You are human, after all, and various scientific studies have found most people spend between 30% and 47% of their waking hours daydreaming.

Your response may be horror that between a third and a half of you and your employees' workdays are spent gazing out the window or pondering their next vacation. But reserve judgment. A recent post by Jonah Lehrer for his New Yorker science blog, Frontal Cortex, explains that not only have scientists confirmed humans are incorrigible daydreamers (yes, even hard-nosed business owners), but also uncovered that this seemingly useless activity actually has an important function.

A forthcoming paper in Psychological Science, from a research team led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler of the University of California at Santa Barbara, demonstrates how daydreaming can be useful. Lehrer describes their study and its outcome:

The experiment itself was simple: a hundred and forty-five undergraduate students were given a standard test of creativity known as an "unusual use" task, in which they had two minutes to list as many uses as possible for mundane objects such as toothpicks, bricks, and clothes hangers.

Subjects were then given a twelve-minute break. During this time, they were randomly assigned to three different conditions: resting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory task, or doing something so boring that it would elicit mind-wandering. Following this interlude, the subjects were given another round of creative tests, including the unusual-use tasks they had worked on only a few minutes before.

Here's where things get interesting: those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one per cent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.

What does this mean? "Those twelve minutes of daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways to make use of toothpicks," writes Lehrer. "The question needed to marinate in the mind, 'incubating' in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control." The results also indicate that simple activities might actually facilitate daydreaming, as they "they consume just enough attention to keep us occupied, while leaving plenty of mental resources left over for errant daydreams." Hence all those ping pong tables at start-ups may not simply be a means to attract youthful talent, but a practical method to increase creativity.

And the research cited by Lehrer isn't the only science in support of letting your mind wander. The Wall Street Journal spoke to other researchers who came to the same conclusion by different means. Kalina Christoff, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, examined brain activity during daydreaming and told the paper that, "people assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty. Mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."

UC Santa Barbara's Schooler perhaps sums up all this science best. "We always assume that you get more done when you're consciously paying attention to a problem. That's what it means, after all, to be 'working on something.' But this is often a mistake. If you're trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself. We shouldn’t be so afraid to actually take some time off," he told Lehrer.

So, go ahead, daydream. You're not being as unproductive; you're being creative.

When do you get your best 'Eureka!' moments?

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Radhika Sivadi