07/25/2016 05:59 pm ET

The Right Kind Of Daydreaming

A wandering mind gets a bad rap --but if done right, it may have benefits.
Is your daydreaming mostly unintentional, or is it deliberate? That could make a difference, researchers say.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images
Is your daydreaming mostly unintentional, or is it deliberate? That could make a difference, researchers say.

When it comes to daydreaming, there may be two very different ways of letting your mind wander ― and if that’s the case, you want to make sure you’re doing it right.

Daydreaming is something we all do every day. Up to 50 percent of your waking life, your mind could be floating somewhere else. This can be disturbing when you realize that researchers have linked a wandering mind to negative consequences like car accidents, poor educational performance and even unhappiness. But other research tells a different story, finding that daydreaming is also associated with creativity, social skills and, interestingly, happiness.

This apparent contradiction might actually make sense. Usually, common behaviors and emotions that are often considered negative ― like boredom, for example ― can actually exist for a positive reason.

“We daydream so frequently that it’s reasonable to assume that maybe our brains do this in a functional way,” says Paul Seli, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Harvard University. “Maybe it’s actually quite beneficial to mind wander. And there’s a smaller area of research showing this is the case.”

In a recent article published in Trends in Cognitive Science, Seli and his colleagues explore this possibility, proposing that there are two types of mind wandering: on one hand, an unintentional breakdown of focus that can be harmful, and on the other, an intentional and deliberate disengagement that can actually be productive.

The Wandering Mind

Sometimes you are perfectly capable of sustaining your focus but choose to daydream about, say, your summer vacation. Other times, despite your best efforts to concentrate, random thoughts keep popping up in your head. One type of daydreaming involves an intentional shift in focus (“I’d rather think about this right now”), and the other involves an unwelcome or unintentional interruption (“Why am I thinking about this right now?”).

Distinguishing between two different types of mind wandering is not new, Seli said. Leonard Giambra, a scientist who has been studying daydreaming since the early 1970s, noted this distinction. Giambra and his colleagues suggested that sometimes our minds wander because unrelated thoughts capture our attention. Other times, we deliberately shift our attention to them.

However, in most studies of daydreaming, researchers have made the assumption that mind wandering is only unintentional, Seli says. He argues that it’s important to make a distinction between intentional and unintentional daydreaming — because if the two behaviors are merged as one construct, it can lead to contradictory findings.  

There may be entirely different neural mechanisms underlying the two types of mind wandering. For example, unintentional daydreaming may be a sign of failure in the brain’s attention system, whereas intentional daydreaming occurs with some deliberate control.

Giambra’s studies and more recent research have shown how one type of mind wandering may be more common for people with certain disorders. People with ADHD, for example, are just as likely as people without ADHD to daydream intentionally, but are also much more likely to do it unintentionally. The same goes for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, Seli said.

The Benefits Of Daydreaming

It’s possible that most negative consequences of mind wandering are related to the unintentional kind of daydreaming, Seli said, while intentional daydreaming may provide benefits like a boost in creativity.

Some researchers noticed the benefits of daydreaming early on. In 1975, Yale psychologist Jerome L. Singer published The Inner World of Daydreaming, a product of his years of research into the phenomenon. Singer acknowledged that daydreaming could be associated with ruminative thoughts and poor attentional control, but he also identified a positive type of daydreaming characterized by playful imagery and creative thought. This is what Singer called “positive constructive daydreaming” and considered to be an essential element of a healthy mind, linked to a number of positive functions.

“Singer noted that daydreaming can reinforce and enhance social skills, offer relief from boredom, provide opportunities for rehearsal and constructive planning, and provide an ongoing source of pleasure,” writer Rebecca McMillan and psychologist Scott Kaufman wrote in a 2013 review of Singer’s work. “Singer describes those who engage in positive constructive daydreaming as ‘happy daydreamers’ who enjoy fantasy, vivid imagery, the use of daydreaming for future planning, and possess abundant interpersonal curiosity.”

Researchers have also found that while unintentional daydreaming is associated with fidgeting and acting mindlessly, deliberate daydreaming may be linked with certain aspects of mindfulness.

In a 2014 study, Seli and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that deliberate mind wandering was particularly connected to one factor of mindfulness, known as “nonreactivity to inner experience,” which involves perceiving feelings and emotions without having to react to them.

“The more people intentionally mind wander in their daily life, the more mindful they are, whereas the opposite is true for unintentional mind wandering,” Seli said.

How To Reduce Untimely Daydreaming 

In unintentional mind wandering, you simply can’t concentrate. But in intentional mind wandering, you may be not motivated to pay attention, and instead choose to think about something else. However, even this can be too costly in certain situations — for example, in a classroom where you need to pay attention and learn the material.

Seli’s research has found that in a college classroom setting, intentional daydreaming occurs more often than unintentional daydreaming. This, Seli says, suggests that it may be more fruitful to increase students’ motivation rather than try to boost their focus. Meanwhile, mindfulness training could help people reduce their unintentional daydreaming.

Even though daydreaming may lower your performance in the present or make you miss your subway stop, however, it could also help in the long run. As Singer had observed and more recent research continues to suggest, daydreaming allows us to plan for and rehearse future events. When the task at hand is easy enough to perform without full attention, people take the opportunity to shift their thoughts to planning future events or solving problems.

So if you are in a place where you can afford to daydream, go ahead. If you need 100 percent of your brain power to work on something, try taking breaks every now and then to let your mind wander free.