By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Contributing Columnist
“What?” “I said stop spacing out.” “Oh, sorry.” If you're anything like me, you've probably had this conversation with parents, teachers, or friends at least a few times. Sometimes there is just something more interesting going on in your brain, and it drags you off even when you are supposed to be concentrating on a conversation, important information, or maybe what will be on the test next week.
The daydreamers amongst us were always dubbed as something pathological, a psychological phenomenon to be fixed. “Successful people are always focused and pay attention to the task at hand,” they told us. However, new psychological research is uncovering the fact that a moderate amount of daydreaming is perfectly natural, and even has many benefits.
Improve Your Working Memory
The ability to daydream is actually linked to better memory skills. Sounds strange, right? If you're regularly thinking about something else, how could you possibly recall the necessary information? In 2012, Jonathan Smallwood and researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Planck Institute found that a wandering mind correlates with what is referred to as “working memory”, which is the ability to retain and recall information in the face of distractions.
They conducted a test in which people performed two extremely easy activities, pressing a button in response to a letter appearing on the screen, and tapping their finger to the beat of their own breathing.
People whose minds wandered during the first task scored higher on the memory test. When tasks are not difficult, the brain uses a higher working memory to apply it to other things.
The ability to daydream and then return to the simple task at hand has good implications for the modern life, where multitasking is often a necessity.
Boost your Mood and Improve your Relationships
So, you're imagining ballroom dancing with or kissing that amazing person that you're romantically involved with? It's actually not a frivolous waste of time; it's good for your emotional state.
These kinds of daydreams elevate your mood and increase feelings of love and connection with your significant other. In a 2014 U.K. study on consciousness and cognition, Dr. Giulia Poerio and researchers performed an experiment testing the effects of romantic daydreaming.
They asked a group of men and women with an average age of 22 to daydream about various topics. Throughout the day, they sent them text messages to see how they were feeling.
They found that the daydreams that didn't have to do with the test subjects’ significant others didn't have an effect on mood, but if they daydreamed about their romantic partners it did. This kind of visualizing can have a strong impact, and can serve as a temporary substitute for social interaction.
Maybe it will be a few days before you get to see that special someone because you are both busy, but you can still imagine what you would do with them, and look forward to it. This could be helpful for both close-distance and especially long-distance relationships.
Be Better at Problem Solving
To really solve a problem, you have to give your mind a rest from finding the solution. Then, it will come more easily.
Yep, let your brain wander for a few minutes. In 2012, Benjamin Baird and researchers at the University of Santa Barbara, California, conducted a study that backs up this neurological truth.
They gave their test subjects an activity: an “unusual use task.” This involves listing as many uses for an item as possible. They can be conventional or unconventional uses, and it can be any given object.
After giving them this activity, they broke people into four groups: those who did a demanding task, those who did an undemanding task, those who rested for 12 minutes, and those who took no break. Then, they repeated the “unusual use task” to see who who improved.
Only those in the “undemanding task” group improved their score.
Score one for the doodlers! This study has great implications for people who do relaxed, automatic activities like knitting or braiding or doodling. Maybe you feel like you are doing nothing, but your brain is actually strengthening its ability to solve other practical problems in your everyday life.
Be More Empathetic
It's healthy to have more connection and understand one another.
People who are daydreamers often have a vivid imagination, and they are able to picture something they haven't experienced. This, in and of itself, is a gateway to empathy because it makes it easier to understand others.
Maybe you haven't lived on the street, but you sometimes imagine how cold it would be. Maybe you haven't been a doctor, but you see that it's stressful trying to see so many patients per day.
Empathy can also work in positive situations, such as imagining the daily life of someone who is rich or in a comfortable position. This facilitates better relationships with others.
A 2013 study by Gaesser B at the department of psychology at Harvard found that there was a link between memory, imagination, and empathy. The ability to vividly imagine specific events facilitates pro-social interactions and behaviors.
Try daydreaming about what a situation might be like, putting yourself in the shoes of others for a few minutes.
Fall Asleep Faster
A daydream can be the gateway to a night dream. Good daydreamers often sleep better.
According to Professor Emeritus Jerome Singer from Yale University, “People daydream elaborately before they go to sleep.”
Those who don't sleep well are often not having those fluid, fanciful daydreams they should. Instead, they are thinking about structured problems of the real world, such as work or relationship issues.
Give yourself time to solve those things before you slip under the covers. Then, when you are in bed, imagine crazy, positive things, like being on a tropical beach or flying. You will drift right into a good dream.
Unstructured daydreaming is one thing, but there is also another type of visualization that can help you. Sometimes in your day-to-day personal life, you react badly instead of thinking about your reaction.
Psychotherapist Tina Tessina recommends a technique for avoiding this kind of knee-jerk reaction. It's called “Rewinding the tape.”
You review the argument in your mind, go back, and imagine ways to respond differently. In this way, you can begin to figure out methods of communicating more effectively with the person. While it isn't healthy to re-imagine a negative past, this exercise can be positive to revise the future.
Boost Creativity and Achieve Goals
Daydreaming makes new connections in your brain and reaches it to previously “impossible places.” According to Eugenio M. Roethe, a psychiatrist at Florida International University, during the dialogue that occurs in daydreaming, the mind cycles through different parts of the brain.
Daydreaming allows your brain to access information that was subconscious and out-of-reach. It can also make associations between pieces of information that were previously unrelated.
I like to call this the “poet brain”, juxtaposing two things in an unconventional way. This often causes bursts of creativity, wisdom, and solutions to problems.
And in daydreams, nothing is impossible. Imagining something that seems unreachable can actually make it more reachable.
Olympic athletes and performers use positive visualization techniques to prepare for the real thing. So, the next time you need to succeed or simply relax, let your mind play and go to different places.