In Defense of Daydreaming

These days everyone is telling you to be ‘more in the now’. Everyone is flaunting the benefits of being in ‘flow’ or of being more mindful of our surroundings. We shouldn’t be worrying about the future, doubting ourselves or worrying about the past; we should be smelling the roses and skipping through fields!

And all that sounds good on the face of it. But in the quest to be constantly ‘present’, there is an unintentional casualty: daydreaming.

In this article, I will argue that you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater…

What Is Daydreaming?

For all intents and purposes, it seems that the ‘default mode network’ is responsible for what we consider to be daydreaming. The default mode network is a series of brain areas that turn on whenever we engage in a mindless task – such as washing the dishes or going for a walk. It also seems to come on whenever we actively decide to daydream.

Specifically, the brain regions involved in this process appear to be part of the medial prefrontal cortex, part of the medial temporal lobe and some of the posterior cingulate. It is so named because its structure seems to encourage it to active by default and it works as a counterpoint to the ‘task positive network’.

But anatomy isn’t really important. What’s important, is that the default mode network appears to kick in just when we stop being actively engaged in what we’re doing and start to reflect and daydream. Theories link it to ‘thought wondering’ and possibly see it as a crucial aspect in creativity (1).

Daydreaming and Creativity

This also makes sense with what we know about creativity and the anecdotes we have regarding moments of creative insight. For instance, Einstein came up with his special theory of relativity while working in a patent office and attributes the menial tasks he performed there with helping his creative process. Many other stories of ideation feature people engaging in tasks or taking long strolls through the woods.

Why does relaxing and daydreaming allow us to be creative? Because it gives our brains the opportunity to meander between different thoughts and memories in order to create new solutions to problems. The media temporal lobe’s role in the default mode network gives us access to our memories, while the medial prefrontal cortex allows us to imagine the actions of others and posterior cingulate cortex integrates it all together.

Daydreaming and reflecting is often what allows us to intellectualize a concept and again there’s nothing wrong with doing that. Especially when you consider that infant brains have little evidence of a default mode network – it is a higher order function that develops later in life.

The Other Roles of Daydreaming

Daydreaming has other roles too. Daydreaming allows us to reflect on things that have happened to us, which helps us to perform better in future and to better appreciate the good times we’ve had. It lets us weave stories and it allows us to plan for the future. And even that worrying voice or ‘inner Woody Allen’ has its place – sometimes it can stop us from making stupid mistakes.

So sure, live in the now and enjoy everything you do in a way that lets you stay present and engaged. At the same time though, don’t undervalue the importance of daydreaming and give yourself time occasionally to wander and wonder through the annals of your mind.

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