Caught in a Daydream? You May Be Nurturing a Healthier Brain

Far from being wasted time, letting your mind wander can enhance creativity, problem-solving, and more.

a middle-aged bearded white man with a ponytail gazes out a window with a smile

Updated on January 19, 2023.

We live in an on-the-go culture. Even while you’re driving your kid to baseball practice, you’re probably planning the list of groceries to pick up on the way home, mentally preparing for tomorrow’s work presentation, and wondering if you have enough Elmer’s glue in the house for your daughter’s science project.

During your downtime, what do you do? You might binge-watch that show you missed on Netflix or scroll on your phone, always plugged in.

But between responsibilities and recreation, you might be missing out on one of the oldest—and most valuable—forms of zoning out, something your teachers may have discouraged when you were young: daydreaming.

Letting your mind wander has either gotten a bad rap or been squeezed out of our limited mental bandwidth, but researchers are interested in the value it may hold for healthy brains.

So do yourself a favor and let your mind wander a little bit today.

The benefits of zoning out

By using brain scans, scientists today have a better sense for what happens when our minds wander. Daydreaming doesn't mean your mind is unproductive. In fact, when we daydream, parts of the brain that are important for things like problem-solving and creative thinking are quite active. A little daydreaming can also be beneficial for self-reflection and to help set and accomplish goals.

A 2009 study compared brain activity of participants when they played an easy game and when their minds simply wandered freely. Daydreaming lit up the brain areas that researchers expected it to, such as those that handle routine daily activities. But daydreaming also activated the lateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the so-called executive network of the brain, where complex problem-solving happens. It seems that giving your brain a break allows these higher-function areas to work on the weighty questions humming in the background of your thoughts—like how to solve a problem at work, resolve an argument with your partner, or set down the first few lines of that paper that’s due tomorrow.

A 2021 study in the online journal PNAS studied participants during an attention test. Researchers found that when people were allowing thoughts to flow or thinking about something unrelated to any particular task, the front of their brains were stimulated. These brain areas are thought to be responsible for creativity and are more prominent in creative people.

It may seem that a wandering mind is purposeless. But more often than not, a mind left to its own devices goes toward goals you want to achieve or problems you need to solve. A 2016 study published in Experimental Brain Research found that people who took a little time to set goals—and then let their minds wander—had goals that were better developed and more concrete than those who didn’t spend time daydreaming.

Making the most of mental downtime

Your mind wanders as much as 50 percent of the time, so rather than struggle to suppress its natural tendency to roam, consider the value in making the most of it.

It’s true that daydreaming can often end in worry—thinking about things you need to do but don’t have time for or ruminating over past regrets. But you can use a little intentional effort to direct your mind toward productive thoughts. This is known as positive-constructive daydreaming. Here are four tips to help you get there:

Carve out time. Your mind is ready to roam most of the time, so creating moments to daydream will increase your chances of using the time effectively.

Look inside. If you need to, close your eyes, sit in a comfortable chair, and try to reduce the noise and sensations from things going on around you.

Try a simple, creative task. You may find it easier to create a good space for daydreaming by doing a simple, repetitive task like knitting, washing dishes, or gardening.

Be open to creativity. Your gut reaction may be to suppress things that come up that you don’t want to think about or that seem odd or unproductive. Instead, try to observe the thoughts that arrive in a non-judgmental way. For those that you feel aren’t serving your interests, simply acknowledge them and set them to the side. (“Yep, I’m worried about next week’s presentation. I’ll come back to that tomorrow.”) For thoughts that you’d like to harness and explore, view them with a simple curiosity that tells your brain you’d like to learn more. (“Hmm, a way to entertain my in-laws while also giving the kids something to do on a rainy day? Interesting.”)  

If you find your mind is filled with more topics that bring on worry than those that make you feel good, consider giving your mind a topic you enjoy as a starter. Think about where you might go for your next vacation or the next fun recipe you’d like to try, and let your mind do its thing.

The key is to embrace the potential of daydreaming. It’s not necessarily wasted time, but may in fact help you become more creative, better at solving problems, and more agile mentally.

Article sources open article sources

Kam, Julia, Irving, Zachary, Mills, Caitlin, Knight, Robert. Distinct electrophysiological signatures of task-unrelated and dynamic thoughts. PNAS. 2021;114:e2011796118.
Vago, D. R., & Zeidan, F. The brain on silent: mind wandering, mindful awareness, and states of mental tranquility. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2016;1373:96–113.
Medea, B., Karapanagiotidis, T., Konishi, M. et al. How do we decide what to do? Resting-state connectivity patterns and components of self-generated thought linked to the development of more concrete personal goals. Experimental Brain Research. 2016;236:2469–2481.
Christoff K, Gordon AM, Smallwood J, Smith R, Schooler JW. Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009;106(21):8719-8724.
Christoff K, Irving ZC, Fox KC, Spreng RN, Andrews-Hanna JR. Mind-wandering as spontaneous thought: a dynamic framework. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2016;17(11):718-731.
Westgate EC, Wilson TD, Buttrick NR, Furrer RA, Gilbert DT. What makes thinking for pleasure pleasurable?. Emotion. 2021;21(5):981-989.

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