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David Baxter PhD

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Why Daydreaming Is Actually Good For Your Brain

by Melinda Wenner Moyer, The New York Times
August 4, 2022

Whenever I have a few moments of down time — every weekday, for instance, when I’m waiting in the car pool pickup line for my children at camp — I grab my phone and check to see whether anything interesting has happened on Instagram. The thing is, I don’t particularly like Instagram. Social media usually makes me feel insecure, but somehow that is preferable to sitting alone with my thoughts.

I’m certainly not the only person who would rather do something than engage in introspection. In research that was published in 2014, adults were given the option of either entertaining themselves with their own thoughts for 15 minutes or giving themselves painful electric shocks. Sixty-seven percent of men and 25 percent of women chose the shocks.

A study published last week suggests that our tendency to avoid being alone with our thoughts is in part because “we tend to underestimate the value of thinking,” said one of the study’s authors, Kou Murayama, a psychologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany. Dr. Murayama and his colleagues asked adults to first predict how much they would like sitting in a quiet room alone, and then actually had them do it for 20 minutes. To their surprise, the participants enjoyed the experience more than they had expected to.

To be fair, passing the time thinking can be unpleasant — for instance if you worry about all the things you need to get done before the end of the day, or ruminate over past mistakes, said Erin Westgate, a psychologist who studies daydreaming and boredom at the University of Florida. And if we let our minds wander when we should be concentrating — while doing an important work task, say, or driving — we can get ourselves into trouble, and even put lives at risk. But research shows that letting our minds wander and engaging in certain kinds of daydreaming can give us joy, serenity and even make us more creative.

Here’s how to start making the most out of those rare moments of solitude and reverie.

Find the right time and place to get lost in thought.

Daydreaming — when our attention shifts to thoughts unrelated to our environment and experience — might seem like an easy escape from the here and now, but it can be a complicated mental task. “You’re essentially being the actor, director, screenwriter and audience of this whole mental performance,” Dr. Westgate said. Sometimes we start daydreaming without even realizing it, but if you’re doing it intentionally, it’s best not to daydream while you’re distracted or tired — because that is likely to make it less enjoyable (and less safe), she said.

An ideal time to drift off is when you are doing something that doesn’t demand much mental attention: waiting for the bus, gardening, cleaning, showering, taking a walk or even brushing your teeth. You want to have “the cognitive resources available to withdraw inward and focus on your own thoughts,” Dr. Westgate said. But this doesn’t mean you should sit down on the couch and decide to do nothing but daydream; it can be easier to daydream when you’re engaged in a menial task than when you’re doing nothing at all, said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies human cognition.

Focus on positive, interesting and meaningful thoughts.

When people don’t enjoy spending time alone with their thoughts, it’s often because they’re focusing on the wrong things, Dr. Westgate said. For instance, she does not suggest using your free moments to try to plan out your day — she has studied what happens when people do this, and it tends to cause stress and upset them.

Dr. Westgate’s research has found that “thinking for pleasure” works well when people are given prompts in advance, such as focusing on a favorite memory, fantasizing about an event they are looking forward to or imagining a future accomplishment. She also suggested including those you care about in your daydreams; think about going on vacation with good friends or family.

To nurture creativity, focus on interesting ideas.

If you want your thoughts to spark creativity, you may want to take a slightly different tack and instead focus on ideas you find curious and interesting, Dr. Schooler said. He calls this practice “mind wondering.” Think about the ideas presented in a book or article you’ve been reading or a podcast you’ve listened to, he said.

Dr. Schooler and his colleagues found that people came up with more creative solutions to problems after taking a break from trying to solve them, and doing an undemanding task while daydreaming. When they did other things during that break — either sat quietly‌ or focused on a different difficult task‌ — or when they did not take a break at all, problem-solving was more difficult.

“‘Mind wondering’ may be an opportunity to come up with novel, different approaches that you hadn’t thought of before,” he said.

If your mind goes to bad places, try mindfulness.

Some problems aren’t, however, going to be solved through daydreaming — and you might find that daydreaming keeps bringing you back to them and stressing you out, said Jonathan Smallwood, a psychologist at Queen’s University in Ontario. For instance, ruminating over the things your annoying work colleague has done is probably not going to solve anything because the situation is out of your control, he said. In these cases, daydreaming can “become something a little bit more like a curse, because you can’t escape from the problem that your brain is constantly trying to work out,” he said.
In this situation, practicing mindfulness — a mental state in which you focus on the present moment — could “help to rein in the incessant chatter,” Dr. Schooler said. As soon as you’ve noticed that your thoughts have become stressful or depressing, pause and try to redirect your focus to the present moment. Think about your breath and the sensations you feel. Then, coax your daydreams in a more positive direction, he said — think about a happy memory, say, or a TV show you found provocative.

This afternoon, when I got to the camp pickup line, I reflexively reached for my phone — but then I remembered that I didn’t want to scroll. “The key thing is learning that you can control your attention,” Dr. Schooler told me. “Many people don’t appreciate that.” In other words, I can start prioritizing my own thoughts. So, I put my phone down, and started to daydream. I reminisced about singing in an a cappella group when I was in college — a time before smartphones and social media even existed.
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