On Mindlessness and Daydreaming

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one
— John Lennon - Imagine

Lately, there is a lot of buzz around “Mindfulness,” as the extreme focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment. But what about the total lack of focus? What about Mindlessness?

Mindlessness is like when my mind starts to wander and to wonder. What is the difference between a selfie and a self-portrait? Is yawning is directly correlated to the frequency of our breathing? Let's grab another coffee. Total mindlessness. Or what I like to call: “Daydreaming.”

In a society that emphasises productivity, daydreaming is usually associated with non-doing, escapism, or even laziness. We are under constant pressure to do, achieve, produce, succeed. No time for daydreaming, people think. So, let’s put this sweet mindlessness back in a positive, even beneficial and healthy perspective.

In fact, daydreaming can be beneficial in many ways and, ironically, can actually boost productivity. Plus, it's something almost everyone does naturally. Psychologists estimate that we daydream for one-third to one-half of our waking hours, although a single daydream lasts only a few minutes. This is confirmed by a video published by the New York Times magazine about the importance of unfocusing. Here, we are told we spend as much as 50% of our time daydreaming.

Brain gymnastics

A new University of British Columbia study finds that our brains are much more active when we daydream than previously thought. Through fMRI scans, researchers found that activity in the complex problem-solving areas of the brain were highly active during daydreaming episodes. People who are having trouble solving complicated problems might be well served to let go of their immediate goal, and just let their mind wander with a simple task instead.

Lower blood pressure

Researchers from the Anti-Stress Center have found that daydreaming is a form of hypnosis, and can lower stress levels as well as blood pressure. People who are experiencing anxiety and stress can spend time daydreaming to relieve stress, as well as enjoy the benefits of lowered blood pressure. Further, psychiatrists from the Menninger Clinic believe that daydreaming allows you to mentally rehearse steps, such as flying for an upcoming trip, and make you better prepared to handle the events when they happen.

Achieve goals

The beauty of daydreams is that nothing is impossible. Visualising your goals, dreaming about them, people end up working harder to make these dreams become realities. Olympic athletes and performers use this same kind of visualization, which has been shown to help their performance in the way that actual physical practice does. 

Memorise this

According to research from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, people who have a tendency to let their mind wander often have a more active and well-equipped brain, as well as a higher degree of working memory. In their study, researchers found that participants who daydreamed during easy tasks were more likely to remember information, even when distracted, indicating a higher level of working memory. Researchers believe that the mental process of daydreaming is actually very similar to the brain’s working memory system.

Why daydreaming?

More active brain, sharper problem solving, better memory, lower blood pressure. Why is this the case?

“What these studies seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” said Jonathan Smallwood, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science. In other words, daydreamers’ minds wander because they have too much extra capacity to merely concentrate on the task at hand.

Exactly: too much extra brain capacity. Let’s remember this one next time someone comments on our daydreaming ;-)