08/16/2013 08:49 am ET Updated Aug 16, 2013

5 Fascinating Facts About Daydreams


By Jena Pincott

Daydreams distract us for a shocking 47 percent of our waking hours. They make us feel undisciplined and unproductive. And they don't even make us happier. So what's the upside?

1. They'll Bring Out Your Inner Rube Goldberg
You have two minutes. How many uses can you think of for a brick? Chances are, you'll generate more ideas -- creative ones -- if you stop to daydream first than if you stay focused. When volunteers in a study at the University of California at Santa Barbara tried this, they were a shocking 41 percent more prolific. As in REM sleep, the daydreaming mind is doing more than just undressing your neighbor or accepting a Nobel Prize. Unconsciously, it's working on a solution, recombining bits of information and making unexpected connections. Try the study’s drill: Ponder your problem, and then let yourself space out (watch objects drift on a screensaver, for instance) for 12 minutes before refocusing.

2. They Remind You of Your Master Plan
Amid life's petty stuff -- traffic jams, checkout lines, dusting -- daydreaming may help remind you of larger goals, found a study at the University of British Columbia. The brain has two networks: the "default" (associated with creativity and self-reflection) and the "executive" (planning and problem-solving); when one is on, the other is usually off. The surprise finding was that daydreaming activated both networks simultaneously, and the dual activity was stronger in people so "zoned out" they didn't even know their minds had wandered. One theory: Big-picture plans and problems surface when the present moment is tuned out and the two networks have the chance to "mix." What comes of this are replays of the past, what-if scenarios, abstract, free-ranging ideas -- and, if we're really lucky, insights.

3. They Can Erase (Some of) That Heartbreaking Moment
Let's say there's something you'd like to forget (a depressing encounter, a medical procedure, a boring lecture). To induce a merciful bit of amnesia immediately try to let your mind roam to something that is emotionally different from that experience, says Peter Delaney, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Carolina, Greensboro. In his study, volunteers who daydreamed right after learning a list of words remembered far less than those who stayed present. Note: The "amnesia effect" was especially strong when thoughts strayed to a distant place (a vacation abroad) or time (two or more weeks ago). But don't expect an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind experience. "'Intentional forgetting' won't completely erase your memory," explains Delaney, but it will get rid of some (undesirable) details.

4. They Can Be Pleasingly Controllable
In your daydreams, would you rather plan or reflect? To drift to the future (how should I ask for a raise?), move your body forward; to think about the past (lost loves, etc.), move backward. This works subconsciously, found a University of Aberdeen experiment, because space and time are linked in the mind. When volunteers were instructed to watch a star-field animation screensaver (like this one), spiral inwards (an illusion of backward motion), they daydreamed of past events, and when it flowed in the opposite direction, they thought about things that might happen in the future. Self-experiment by derailing your mind on a bus or subway (your choice, of course, of a forward- or backward-facing seat).

5. They're a Symptom of Youth
If you've ever worried that your chronic dreaminess is actually an early sign of senility, here's some relief. For better or for worse, distraction from a task is more common among the young, found a study at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. In a battery of tasks, some easy and others difficult, seniors mind-wandered far less than college students (about one-third versus one-half). Although both groups scored equally well overall, older people's thoughts -- thanks to more discipline, less working memory, fewer distractions…it's not yet known -- were more grounded in the here and now.

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