Daydreaming, and its broader category, mind wandering, don’t necessarily have the best reputations. But according to a piece in the New York Times, new research is shedding light on how often we daydream, how it works, and how it might actually be beneficial. First, the what and how of mind wandering. Researchers have studied this in a few different ways. In one case, they literally interrupted people sporadically throughout the day to ask what they were thinking; the estimate in that case was that people’s minds wander almost a third of the time.
In another case, they furnished people with copies of “War and Peace” or “Sense and Sensibility” and asked them to read for a half hour, reporting each time they noticed their minds wandering; most people caught themselves daydreaming one to three times in that period. (People who were sipping a cocktail or craving a cigarette were even more distracted.) Then, researchers set up machines that could track people’s eye movements, to determine whether they were slowing down to parse through complex text, simply skimming over it, or ‘spacing out’ altogether.
In some cases, the results are what you might expect. Daydreaming has some downsides. In the case of the eye-tracking, researchers found that people could disengage from their task for as long as two minutes before realizing it. In this sense, daydreaming is, as Times’ writer John Tierney puts it, a waste of your time: “You’d be better off putting down the book and doing something more enjoyable or productive than ‘mindless reading.’” However, there are some benefits to the wandering mind as well. In some cases, daydreaming activates more parts of the brain at once than we typically use, which can foster connections and creativity that engender new ideas. In addition, mind wandering can be a protection against boredom, such as keeping our mental health intact while stuck in traffic.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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