Are you a daydream believer?

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Written by Chris Griffiths and Caragh Medlicott on 9 November 2022 in Features
Features

Chris Griffiths and Caragh Medlicott tell us why daydreaming is a seriously important activity 

The mind is a mysterious machine. It sometimes feels that when you need it most, it goes offline. Whether it’s trying to recall the name of someone famous or staring at a blank page waiting for the ideas to start pouring out, we so often fall short in the crucial moment only to have the answer appear to us hours later when our attention is elsewhere. The truth is, these occurrences aren’t by chance, they’re a symptom of how our brains work (something few of us are truly aware of).

In all other areas of life, we understand that knowledge and methodology can help us improve. For example, when it comes to nutrition and exercise, we recognise that knowing how our bodies work enables us to optimise their condition through planning and action (from diet to exercise routines). So how come we don’t take this approach with our thinking? Metacognition (aka thinking about thinking) is an invaluable tool for stress management, and daydreaming is a crucial aspect of that. 

First things first, let's dig into the science. For many people, being told to daydream in order to “think better” and get more stuff done sounds counterintuitive – especially when it comes to dealing with stress! We are conditioned early on to think of daydreaming as something frivolous and childish. If you were ever caught daydreaming in class as a kid, you were probably berated for it. These experiences position daydreaming as something in opposition to learning and productivity. This is because we tend to think of our brains as functioning at their highest level when we’re focused, but it’s actually not that simple. 

The best way to activate the kind of daydreaming which inspires great thinking is to engage in a task which requires a relaxed attention, typically something monotonous or repetitive

Think of your mind as a light source, when you’re concentrating on something it operates as a spotlight and the rest of your neurological functioning slows down in order to allow you to give your full attention to the task at hand. Conversely, when you’re daydreaming, that spotlight is softened and broadened until the whole of your brain lights up. This isn’t just a metaphor, it’s true from a neurological perspective. Research from the University of British Columbia found that when we daydream, more parts of our brain are activated than when we’re concentrating – a discovery which surprised scientists who had assumed for a long time that focus must naturally correlate with more brain activity. Not so!

Most people have experienced this first hand in their own life. How many ideas have you had just pop into existence while driving to work, taking a shower, or out on a run? Some of the most famed creative geniuses in history – including Issac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Edison – all credit daydreaming with some of their biggest breakthroughs. Now that we’ve established that daydreaming is of the utmost importance, it’s time to look at how you can implement it in your own life. 

First things first, it’s important to distinguish daydreaming from worrying or overthinking. Spending time going over and over the same things in your head, is not the same as allowing your mind to wander and roam free. Much of our thinking is cyclical… In fact, research shows humans have about 6,200 thoughts in a single day and 95% of them are the same as the thoughts we had the day before. Taking a break from work just to spend the whole time worrying about work certainly isn’t going to do any good. In fact, it might make things worse. 

The best way to activate the kind of daydreaming which inspires great thinking is to engage in a task which requires a relaxed attention, typically something monotonous or repetitive such as walking, running, doodling, or even washing up! A report from the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed that doodling can actually increase memory skills, with people who doodle proving better at recalling information than those who listen without distraction. Daydreaming in this way works because the task at hand is just engaging enough to hold your attention, but not so demanding that you can’t drift off and think about other things. Thus, it naturally facilitates a relaxed, contemplative state. 

When it comes to managing stress and overwhelm, daydream breaks can be a life saver. Some people feel daunted by the prospect of having a break when they already feel like they’re running out of time to get everything done, but it’s important to know that not all work is created equal – long hours spent at your desk doesn’t guarantee high output. Remember the spotlight analogy from earlier, when searching for ideas in the rooms of your mind, it’s better to turn on the overhead light than rummage around with a torch.

Daydreaming is the best kept secret in a stressed, overwhelmed world. Not only does it help you think creatively and with more clarity, it also provides some very welcome respite from the demands of daily life, allowing the brain to recharge and operate at its best. By scheduling daily daydreaming breaks into your life you’ll soon find that you’re producing better work in less time. That’s why, despite the stereotype, daydreaming is a very serious business indeed.

Chris Griffiths and Caragh Medlicott, authors of The Creative Thinking Handbook.  Chris Griffiths is a leading keynote speaker on innovation and founder of OpenGenius.com

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