The case for daydreaming

Need to make an important decision? Have to hit that deadline? Maybe you should rest or daydream first. (“What? Rest?”) BeWell spoke with Vinod Menon, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science, to learn more about the different systems our minds use to solve problems and the benefits of allowing your mind to wander.

In a world of hyper-productivity, is there a case to be made for rest?

Most definitely. But wait, here goes a bell: I start multitasking. I need to check my email, Twitter and Facebook accounts before I can get back to this discussion. Alas, now I am too fatigued to answer this question, so I need some rest!

Does the mind really rest?

Even when we are physically at rest, our minds are constantly active, always working — imagining, thinking, remembering and planning. The brain is highly metabolically active at rest, and even the most difficult mental tasks do not increase activity by more than 1-2 percent.    

Why is daydreaming important?

Daydreaming has been thought of generally in pejorative terms, as in — “Don’t be inattentive!” However, it is important to broaden our definition of the term based on what we have learned from the psychological and brain sciences. Daydreaming, mind wandering and self-reflection are all part of a default mode of brain function — one that has been linked to a specific brain system that my colleagues and I helped discover here at Stanford a decade ago.1

The default mode operates differently from attention-demanding systems and networks — which are engaged in tasks such as keeping two multi-digit numbers in memory and adding them. While the default mode of function lacks the same sense of immediacy as systems involved in problem solving, it is not purposeless. Mental downtime engages this brain system, allowing us to think about problems differently without a sense of urgency, link different thoughts that we might otherwise not have, reflect on our thoughts and actions, and internalize memorable events in ways that enrich our inner lives. 

Our brains do not solve all problems the same way?

The brain has multiple systems for solving problems in different domains: e.g., reading and arithmetic. But there are some key systems that are engaged each time we attend to new information and make decisions, regardless of the cognitive domain. 

Multitasking requires us to disengage these systems and engage new systems; there is not only a switching cost associated with this change of systems, but also additional time required for reconstructing the previous problem one was trying to solve in the first place. Thoughts are essentially ephemeral, so one may never be able to reconstruct the same thought again and the chance of errors increases significantly as well. This “disconnect” can be helpful sometimes, as over-thinking a problem can be detrimental. However, there are problems that require more deliberate thinking over extended periods of time — a process which can be disrupted by multitasking. 

Is there an inverse relationship between multitasking and creativity?

Most likely there is, but there are no studies to “prove” this (as far as I know) — so that would be a strong statement. Multitasking is easy to define and operationalize, but creativity is not. We have a good understanding of brain systems involved in multitasking but we have no idea where creativity and insight come from. Nevertheless, studies have shown that reducing multitasking can increase creativity. For example, my colleague at Stanford, Dan Schwartz, showed recently that taking a stroll can increase performance on a standardized test of creativity.2

Does your research have practical applications for the way we plan our daily calendar, or for our use of email, the internet and social networking?

The use of email, the internet and social networking are creating a huge overload on our cognitive and attentional systems, and at the same time are reducing our time for self-reflection and meaningful social communication. I don’t think this is good, especially for children who need to learn about the world around them through social interactions. Building in periods of mental downtime is now increasingly necessary. A difference between the present and the past generations is that this downtime now requires conscious effort and planning.      

What are activities that trigger the mind-wandering mode? 

Taking a walk in nature or listening to music are examples of activities that could help reduce the burden of multitasking and information/cognitive overload. Any activity that does not involve constant task switching and interruptions is helpful.   

… any final thoughts?

Tap into your default mode for self-reflection, relaxation and possibly creativity. Our brains are designed that way. You can’t escape from the system, so you might as well use it. Daydreaming, mind-wandering and self-reflection all naturally exist — so take advantage it. You can also keep multitasking, but there will be a price to pay for it!


1  Greicius, M. D., Krasnow, B., Reiss, A. L., & Menon, V. (2003). Functional connectivity in the resting brain: A network analysis of the default mode hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(1), 253-258. 

2  Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition. 

Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna

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