The sound of my heels on the hard floor, I find myself on stage, my face hot and eyes slightly squinting from the bright golden lights. I’m bowing before a standing ovation given to me by a much bigger room than I expected, full of admirers. The applause is overwhelming, and pride in my presentation bubbles up through my core. A wave of gratitude washes over me as I realize that my cheeks hurt from the work of smiling, then, suddenly, I am snapped back to my living room where I am writing an article on my Mac and the little cue card that pops up in the right upper corner notifies me of another reminder I had set weeks ago. So I collect my thoughts and continue my work.
We are mostly aware of the proven benefits of taking vacations. We are repeatedly and painfully reminded that our obsession with keeping up with the Jones’ and impressing our bosses is taking its toll on our efficiency, creativity, performance, and even our health! If we insist on leaving a couple vacation days in the bank each year, however, could taking a periodic trip to la-la land also be beneficial?
Daydreaming, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a pleasant visionary usually wishful creation of the imagination,” and by that definition, it is proving to be like a mini-vacation that carries with it more than just a handful of scientifically proven benefits!
Neuroscientist Dr Muireann Irish says that daydreaming is hard work and serves some very important functions. The capability to remember the past and imagine the future is a very complex form of thinking—as far as we can tell, we are the only species with this remarkable ability. The way in which you daydream and think is actually the effect of your brain’s physical structure, which, in turn, is constantly changing in response to new information in the form of new neural pathways due to neuroplastisity!
There are two main systems in your brain: the decision-making analytic part and the relatable empathetic part. When you get really involved in one, there isn’t much room for the other to play. Daydreaming allows for a natural and fluid, almost cyclical movement between these two parts of your brain, turning one on and the other on and off as it imagines.
A lot of creative celebrities, including Woody Allen and JK Rowling, credit daydreaming with their best ideas. This is because when you daydream, your mind travels through different parts of your brain and collects bits of information that it may then be able to connect! These connections often end up being the beginnings of new and creative ideas!
Like being able to remember the past or think into the future, your ability to imagine someone else’s perspective, as far as people know so far, is unique to humans. A person spends up to half of their waking hours daydreaming. If you could practice spending just a portion of that time to contemplate what someone else might be thinking or feeling, it could change your interactions with people and create great opportunities for improved communication and connections.
Speaking of closer connections, research has shown that certain kind of daydreams—namely the “approach-oriented” social kind involving loved ones with whom you have a significant relationship—results in more “happiness, love, and connection” in relation to those people. “Approach-oriented” just means that the daydream is associated with attaining something positive instead of avoiding something negative which would be “avoidance-oriented.”
Working memory is your brain’s ability to store and then recall information in the face of distractions. Recent research out of the University of Wisconsin and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science shows a correlation between high levels of this particular kind of memory and daydreaming!
This correlation is probably the most proven! A Cornell study showed “improved performance” with daydreaming, and Bar-Ilan University found that “spontaneous, self-directed thoughts and associations,” how they defined daydreaming, “have a positive, simultaneous effect on task performance.” There are even more examples that prove that the assumptions of your elementary school teachers were wrong when they thought that your little lapses in attention were detrimental.
Research has proven that daydreaming is kind of like a low-level self hypnosis. In doing so, you may find that you experience lower levels of stress, translating to a physiologically healthier you. Another way to lower stress with the use of daydreaming is to practice in advance. If you have a new experience coming up (perhaps a presentation at work) you can go through it in your mind and be better prepared for the actual event. That’s not all. Daydreaming is also linked with a healthier brain. Patients who suffer from autism and Alzheimer’s disease are unable to participate in this form of self hypnosis. Daydreaming can also help you sleep better, provided your dreams aren’t too structured and serious. Let your nightly mind wander to playful, wild places instead.
Between being more creative, improving your working memory, increasing performance, and lowering stress levels, it is easy to see how you can have an easier time achieving your goals with the help of daydreams. But there is research that proves this as well! When you let yourself slip off to la-la land, your brain’s problem solving network is actually more active than when you are focused on routine tasks. So set your goals, make plans to achieve them, and let your brain help you when you run into obstacles!
With all of the benefits of daydreaming, it’s little surprise that you can find yourself happier by letting yourself indulge in a little mental play. Another reason for this correlation is that hope and anticipation are both strongly related to joy and tend to be byproducts of mind wandering.
Be warned that not all daydreams are created equal. To really tap into the potential benefits of your daydreams, try to free yourself from the worry or fear-based “day-mares.” We all do this, so there’s no shame. But if you catch yourself biting your nails, lost in another imagined horror plot of how your next date could go wrong, or what your boss could have meant by that statement, simply redirect your mind to more positive thoughts and let your brain take you for a joyride—creating new neural pathways along the way!
Featured photo credit: autumn leaves boy/ Philippe Put via flickr.com
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