A wandering mind is a natural thing. Studies indicate that nearly 96 percent of adults fantasize at least once a day. Daydreams are often about anticipating the future, particularly revolving around fantasy, says psychologist Peter Delaney.
For most people, daydreaming isn’t just an escape, it’s a place where you can work out your greatest fears, solve problems and come up with creative solutions — all with very little risk.
Why do daydreams start, and how can I control them?
Although you’d probably assume your mind controls your daydreams, it’s actually the brain itself. What’s the difference? Think of your mind as invisible, akin to a computer’s software; the brain is the physical components, or the hardware.
There’s actually a tangible, neural basis for daydreams.
Researchers have discovered a certain set of brain structures that are inactive while we’re engaged in cognitive tasks, but activate between tasks — basically, the time when we daydream. These structures are known as the brain’s “default network,” and connect portions of the limbic system, frontal cortex and other areas of the brain that control sensory experiences. When the default network is activated, it generates its own stimulation, or “stimulus independent thought.”
In unscientific terms, “stimulus independent thoughts” make up daydreams.
What happens when we daydream?
Daydreaming starts when the brain’s default network kicks into action, but that isn’t the only effect. Depending on what type of daydream we have, it may cause us to forget what we were doing prior to the daydream starting. The more out of context the daydream is (i.e., the more removed it is from what you are currently doing or thinking about) the more likely it is you’ll forget what you were doing.
For instance, if you’re listening to marketing webinar and your mind wanders to that unforgettable vacation to Bora Bora you took last winter, chances are it may take you a few seconds to gather your thoughts once your brain returns to the present.
When your mind wanders, it can also turn off other parts of the brain. Our brains have two important parts: an analytic part that plays an important role in making decisions, and an empathetic part that addresses our relations with others. Generally speaking, when one brain network is engaged, the other network is suppressed.
When we daydream, the brain cycles back and forth between the analytic and empathetic parts.
Is there an evolutionary purpose to daydreaming?
Daydreaming often gets a bad rap, with attributes like spacey, lazy or disinterested applied to someone whose mind tends to wander.
However, daydreaming has importance beyond entertaining us when we’re bored. Researchers have proposed several reasons for why we daydream: to help us explore our inner experiences, to assist in making moral decisions, to understand what others are thinking and to imagine future experiences.
Some psychologists have offered that daydreaming makes us more creative, as it allows us to access information in our brain that is otherwise dormant or out of reach. It may also allow us to make connections between information with which we otherwise would never associate.