Daydreaming: The Benefits of a Little Mental Break

Not staring off into space, rather crafting future plans.
Not staring off into space, rather crafting future plans.

Scott Barry Kaufman earned a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Yale University in 2009, preceeded by a masters degree in experimental psychology from Cambridge University in 2005.  This after he spent grades 1-8 in special education. Multiple early childhood ear infections caused him setbacks both education-wise  and socially. Continual bullying by a special education classmate may have further contributed to a lack of progress in early schooling.

Kaufman tells of how he, as a child, retreated to an inner world where he wrote stories, created soap opera plotlines and imagined a future as a successful psychologist.

He also tells how these mental retreats earned him no love from teachers. As you might guess, this inward-turning nature was used as further evidence of his learning disability.

But Kaufman was learning the power of daydreaming. While he was not convincing his teachers and classmates of any particularly strong cognitive abilities, he was basically planning a future that he ultimately achieved, despite somewhat incredible odds. In addition, he was, through daydreaming, reinforcing his dreams.

Today Kaufman is one of a number of psychology experts that are doing research, writing and speaking on the power and benefits of daydreams.

Sigmund Freud, widely considered the grandfather of psychoanalysis, believed that daydreams were hallmarks of the neurotic and infantile.  In the 1960s, teachers were warned that students that daydreamed had a greater than average disposition to psychosis. Just two weeks ago I heard on a public radio program that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

But other researchers disagree. Yale University’s Jerome Singer established 50-some years ago that daydreaming is normal and widespread. Singer wrote about ‘happy daydreamers’ who used daydreams to plot their future , who found daydreaming  a means of  enjoying private time. His studies showed  that the variety of day dreaming experiences included self-amusement during monotonous tasks or boredom.

Here is a link to Scott Barry Kaufman’s March 2014 Psychology Today article on daydreaming.

Recent Daydreaming Studies
Over the past decade scientists have begun to examine daydreaming more closely and we’re learning that there are some benefits to letting go of the present moment. We are learning that ignoring daydreams can interfere with optimal learning.

In research led by Jonathan Schooler at UC-Santa Barbara, daydreaming participants were interrupted intermittently and asked to record their thoughts. A significant portion of them reported thoughts about the future, and these persons had the highest levels of attention control (were the most able to maintain their daydreams). Daydreams oriented toward the future were related to pursuit of long-term goals. Also known as prospective bias. these results have been found to be cross-cultural when tested in Europe, the U.S., China and Japan.

Schooler concluded that prospective bias serves the function of autobiographical planning, or the setting of personal and relevant future goals and mental imagination of potential future scenarios, including reactions of the dreamers and others in response to the imagined events.

Autobiographical planning, as in Kaufman’s childhood experience, has been shown to be beneficial in the classroom. In a nine-week after school program, students were given the time to imagine the academic future they wanted and to then practice the skills required to achieve those futures. At the end of the school year, daydreaming students reported greater connection to their schoolwork, being more concerned with doing well and better able to balance their positive expectations against feared possible outcomes.

Psychologist E. Paul Torrance conducted a comprehensive study of creative achievement by following a group of elementary students for more than 30 years, collecting a wide variety of indicators of scholastic and creative potential. Torrance found that the best predictor of lifelong personal and publicly recognized creative achievement–much more so that academic indicators and IQ scores—was the extent to which the students had a clear, future-focused image of themselves.

Daydreams and Meaning /Identity
Psychologists say that healthy social and emotional function and the ability to make meaning of life experiences requires constructive internal reflection, as noted by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang. Feeling compassion or inspiration and connecting those feelings between our exterior social world and inner mental life requires introspection.

Kaufman comments that social media and entertainment, even rote classroom or work demands, can focus us too much on the concrete, immediate social world, creating a more superficial self, and thus thwarting imagination by robbing us of opportunities to reflect and establish personal meaning.

What, me Daydream?
As a daydreamer, I was happy to read of Jonathan Smallwood’s study where participants were asked to choose between a small, immediate monetary reward and a larger but delayed monetary reward. The study participants were given a simple task and a more complex working-memory task that required them to keep multiple bits of information in mind. The more people daydreamed (during the simple task) the greater their resistance to the immediate temptation; they held out for a larger reward at some time in the future. This self-control and ability to embrace delayed gratification is a sign of emotional maturity.

I will admit that I tend to, at lunch time, daydream about future home improvements, things I will write, pieces I want to create when working at a hobby. My most creative plans come while outdoors walking the dogs, especially when we are in an open, safe place where I’m not performing working-memory tasks such as wondering if another dog and mine will get along or not.

And when driving on snowy or icy roads, I have never had a moment of daydreaming, other than fleeting thoughts of safely reaching my destination and being done with the driving.

How about you—what do you accomplish in your daydreams?

In closing, a note that Scott Barry Kaufman spoke in Madison, WI at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center, for the 2013 Consciousness Forum. You can enjoy his talk here.

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".

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