By Jena Pincott
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.
Earlier on HuffPost:
Embrace the Random Scribbles
Doodling offers two big benefits: It entertains—and, even better, keeps us focused, finds an experiment at the University of Plymouth. <a href="http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.1561/abstract" target="_blank">Doodlers listening to a long-winded recording of names and places remembered <i>nearly 30 percent</i> more of the information than non-doodlers</a>. The explanation: Scribbling keeps us from daydreaming. An uninterested brain usually stimulates itself by thinking about <i>anything</i> but what’s going on at the moment—which drains our executive resources. Because doodling isn’t nearly as cognitively demanding, we concentrate more on the task at hand.
Shush the Murmurs
Beware barely noticeable noises (quiet radio chatter, whispers in the next row, faraway applause). In a Cornell University study, volunteers felt somewhat bored listening to (an objectively) engaging lecture, and didn’t know why. The reason: <a href="http://psycnet.apa.org/?fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1685" target="_blank">a TV was left on in another room with the volume so low <i>they weren’t even aware of it</i></a>. On a subconscious level, subtle distractions hijack attention—which makes our slightly-less-focused selves feel more-than-slightly-less interested in whatever we’re doing.
Rack Up the Points
For inherently dreary things (calorie-counting, closet-clearing, tax prep) try a techie strategy: “<a href="http://neologisms.rice.edu/index.php?a=term&d=1&t=11245" target="_blank">Gameify</a>” it. Using apps on your smartphone or other gadgets, you can earn reward-redeemable “points”—for tedious activities like rep-counting (<a href="http://www.nexercise.com/" target="_blank">Nexercise</a>) or housecleaning (<a href="http://www.chorewars.com/" target="_blank">Chore Wars</a>). Even ticking off to-do-list items can be fun when you beat your own time—or make it into a contest (<a href="http://www.focusboosterapp.com/live" target="_blank">FocusBooster</a>).
Move to Your "Less Unhappy" Place
Even “futile busyness” beats boredom, report researchers in a University of Chicago Booth School of Business study. Volunteers who ran an unnecessary errand for 15 minutes (voluntarily or not) <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20548057" target="_blank">felt much happier than those who simply waited around for the same amount of time</a>. Similarly, we’re happier (okay, <i>less unhappy</i>) walking a long way to the airport baggage claim than waiting there the whole time, the researchers say—or taking the winding back roads instead of the jam-packed highway (even if we don’t actually get home faster).
Remember the 120-Second Solution
The key to staying engaged when we're stuck, say, reading an insurance policy or doing our taxes: <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010027710002994" target="_blank">two-minute refreshers</a>, finds a study published in <i>Cognition</i>. When volunteers took two short “mental breaks” during a 50-minute demanding task, they stayed focused (and performed better). The brain is built to respond to change, the researchers say. So switch it up a little <i>before</i> you feel blah.
Manage Those Palm Tree Daydreams (Part One)
Blissful daydreams of holidays on glittery beaches, wind in the hair -- sorry, they actually <i>intensify</i> boredom. Let your mind drift to idyllic thoughts, as volunteers did in a study at the University of California at Berkeley, and whatever you’re doing in real time (for them, jigsaw puzzles) <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20625177" target="_blank">will seem less interesting than if you hadn’t been out to sea</a>. The problem: When we catch ourselves happily adrift, we tend to interpret the lapse as a sign that the task we are trying to do is dull -- even if it isn’t -- which only perpetuates the cycle.
Manage Those Palm Tree Daydreams (Part Two)
But for those scrubbing-the-grout moments when you don’t really need to be present, daydreaming can be one of the <i>best</i> things to do. The mind-meander may actually <a href="http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=127365&CultureCode=en" target="_blank">spur creativity</a>, found a study at the University of Lancashire. Volunteers who had been tasked with reading names out of a phone book -- and were bored stiff by it -- later came up with more innovative uses for Styrofoam cups than those who had been spared the phonebook chore. Note: The more passive the monotonous task (for instance, reading or listening instead of writing), the stronger the creative ”surge” afterward.