As the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about to debut on Christmas Day, a UBC researcher talks about how daydreaming can be good for your brain
Kieran Fox thinks a lot about those fleeting thoughts that come to us when we daydream. The UBC psychology researcher talks about the importance of daydreaming and how letting your mind wander can lead to valuable insights.
What are the practical benefits of daydreaming?
Daydreaming tends to have a bad reputation as wasted time, but research suggests it’s when we do some of our most important thinking. It has even been shown to improve problem solving and creativity.
When our minds wander, we can be planning for the future, honing creative ideas, re-assessing the past – far from a wasteful, negative process that should be stopped or avoided. In these moments, our brains are playing around with ideas, unconstrained by our buttoned-down, goal-oriented consciousness.
What does the Walter Mitty story have to say about daydreaming?
In one sense, the Walter Mitty character illustrates how rich and vivid our fantasy life can be. On the other hand, it is kind of a cautionary tale: you don’t want to let your mind run away with you too much. Ideally, our fantasies can be creative but still feed back into our regular day-to-day lives. Total absorption in one’s fantasy life might be good entertainment, but it’s probably not healthy living.
What are the similarities between daydreams and actual dreaming?
Research shows that daydreaming and dreaming are very similar, and may even be two points on the same continuum. Many of the same brain regions are activated, and our brains are busier than when during routine tasks. Content-wise they tend to focus on current events in our lives – events happening in the 72-hour period of today, tomorrow or yesterday. Another hallmark is their concern with emotions and social situations and the fact that they tend to be a little more bizarre and fanciful than everyday life.
How do we maximize the benefits of daydreaming in our daily lives?
It’s important not to judge and evaluate ideas too early or too much as they arise. Let the daydreams go where they may and keep your critical side at bay. You never know what might come up, or what use it might have. Later on you can separate the wheat from the chaff and work out whether the ideas and thoughts have been useful to you, but while they occur it’s best to let them take their course.
One theory is that the brain is set up to produce an unending variety of ideas in the hope that just a few will be useful. The vast majority, however, will be nonsensical. Many great scientists and artists have reported, anecdotally, that this is how their creative process worked: they generated a huge number of ideas and discarded nearly all of them. They accomplished what they did by knowing which inspirations to build on, and which to throw on the trash heap.
Is there a good time to daydream?
Many highly creative people over the centuries have claimed that mental “down time” is essential: that this is where they do their best thinking, where their inspirations come from. The best state of mind to encourage useful, constructive daydreaming is likely a relaxed and peaceful one. There is some evidence that a negative state of mind might lead to more stressful and unproductive thoughts.
Video: Kieran Fox discussing daydreaming
For more on research by Kieran Fox and Prof. Kalina Christoff’s lab, visit the following links: