Daydreaming, Why It's Important

Great Article by Clive Thompson on Daydreaming, check out Wired for more great articles.

Your mind will probably wander while you read this article. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended.

Our modern info-culture lionizes those who possess laserlike focus, particularly at work. Drifting off into a reverie is considered the enemy of productivity, which is partly why some companies control employee access to the Internet. They don’t want the Doctor Who Wikipedia page to trigger a 15-minute woolgathering session.

But what if we’re wrong about daydreaming? What if it’s crucial to solving problems in our personal lives and at work?

Brain scientists are beginning to suspect that it is. And if they’re right, we might need to rethink the way we work — perhaps even develop tools that actually encourage mental drift.

For years, brain scientists viewed a wandering mind as merely a lapse in cognition. But recent studies have found that we lose concentration shockingly often. A 2007 study by Michael Kane of the University of North Carolina found that our minds drift away from our tasks fully one-third of the time. And this suggests that daydreaming can actually be useful — because if it were such a bad thing, it’s unlikely that we’d do it so often.

Why do our minds wander? Brain-scanning technology has uncovered some clues. It turns out that when your mind drifts, your temporal lobes — which are associated with processing long-term memories — become busier. So when you float off into a reverie, you’re actually doing important data-storage work.

Daydreaming isn’t just the mind’s way of processing information, though. Other scans have found that the wandering mind also utilizes the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that’s involved in problem-solving. The upshot, says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara who is studying this area, is that your idling mind is likely doing deeply creative work, tackling your hairiest long-term tasks — projects you’ve been trying to address for months, the arc of your career, the state of your marriage. “Mind-wandering is actually a very involved task,” Schooler says. “You leave the here and now and focus on more remote concerns that nevertheless might be more important. We’ve been focusing on the downside of this, but we need to think about the upside.”

Indeed, Schooler suspects that research like his explains why so many “aha” moments occur when we’re drifting — like Archimedes in the tub.

If he’s right, we ought to think about redesigning the way we work. Modern productivity software is made to minimize mental drift. We ruthlessly track our progress on each task, click off to-do lists, design our workdays with Google-Calendered five-minute-increment meetings.

How about designing software that optimizes daydreaming? For example, one problem with drifting is that we’re often unaware we’re doing it. We can hit upon a cool idea but never even realize it. Imagine an app that randomly pings you to see if your mind is wandering — and if it is, lets you record what you’re thinking about. “It’d be like a personal shrink,” Schooler jokes — a way to strip away the crud of daily work and learn what your brain’s real priorities are.

Granted, most scientists think that if you really want to let your mind roam, you need to engage in a nondemanding task, like going for a three-hour walk.

Most jobs don’t allow that, of course. That’s why I’ve begun to think that the “social” Internet has become a rough substitute. If your boss is trying to force you to focus on PowerPoint and Word documents, you might gravitate to mentally discursive, floaty experiences — the idle surfing of Facebook updates, Wikipedia entries, YouTube videos, casual games like Bejeweled. Maybe these things aren’t so much time sucks as desperate attempts by our brains to decouple from the go-go-go machine and head off on its own.

It’s just a thought. Pin It

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