Why Do We Daydream? This Is The Scientific Reason Your Thoughts Drift Off

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Daydreaming is a very human characteristic. Wool-gathering, drifting away, zoning out: whatever you call it, many of us are subject to flights of fancy, often when we're bored or just as a way to pass the time. But our ability to wander off into our own imaginations, whether it's during dreary lectures or at home, is more important than it might seem, no matter what your fourth-grade teacher said. Why do we daydream? "Mind-wandering," a collection of Israeli scientists wrote in Frontiers In Human Neuroscience in 2011, "is among the most robust and permanent expressions of human conscious awareness, classically regarded by philosophers, clinicians, and scientists as a core element of an intact sense of self." We're increasingly understanding its evolutionary role, what it means for brain function, and why it's so important to let yourself zone out every so often.

The evolutionary role of the human imagination, which plays a large role in daydreaming, is pretty well-established: it's that speculative ability to conjure up imaginary scenarios that differ from the reality that has given humankind an evolutionary edge, granting us the capability to imagine solutions, long-term results, new ideas and entire castles in the air to conquer huge issues. Daydreaming, which is imagination plus distraction, has its own values — and while they might not save you from an annoyed boss when you're obviously thinking of something else during the staff meeting, they're still very important.

It's Got A Role In Brain Efficiency

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How does daydreaming actually work? It appears to largely take place in a collection of brain regions known as the "default mode network," which is also where imagination, thinking of the past and future, and other creative activities are traced by brain-imaging studies. The default network doesn't need outside stimulus to work; it's our own internal entertainment generator, reminiscing engine and personal speculation device. And, interestingly enough, it's got more to do with the brain's more attentive parts than you might think.

Despite the idea that daydreaming takes away from focus on tasks and efficiency, evidence suggests that it actually shows up most often in the brains of people with extremely efficient neural networks. A 2012 study found that people with exceptionally strong levels of working memory — the short-term memory capability that means you can juggle several facts at your fingertips at once, from the need to call a friend in ten minutes to remembering a series of numbers for instant regurgitation — were the biggest daydreamers. They had an "excess" of working memory, the scientists proposed, and used that capacity to think about things other than the task or experience directly in front of them. And a study released this week from the Georgia Institute of Technology backs up this idea. It looked at the MRI patterns of 100 people, and found that those with extremely efficient neural action, with lots of brain networks working in unison, were the most common daydreamers. People with efficient and fine-tuned brains, in other words, are the most prone to flights of fancy.

The default network might be more complex than we assume. Cambridge scientists debuted a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA this week that revealed that this network has a role in something other than daydreaming: how well we perform routine tasks. It's not just something that kicks in and helps us daydream when we're doing something everyday and routine, they suggest. It's actually fundamental to how well we do those activities at all. So daydreaming isn't separate from our brain's ability to function when doing boring things; it's more accurate to say it's a key part of the process.

It Seems To Have A Strong Social Function

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Daydreaming, more often than not, plays a kind of social function and involves other people, from sexual fantasy with imaginary partners, to actual people in our lives. One study cited by Scientific American noted that 73 percent of daydreams seemed to involve other people. (It's important to realize that studying daydreams is hard, because we very rarely monitor them closely as they're happening, and people aware of their daydreams in a study might not report quite what happens in them, in case the contents are embarrassing or surreal.)

But the ability to daydream about our potential interactions with those around us, imaginary or not, may have important social appeal. It's been suggested that romantic daydreaming might be particularly useful for humans to evaluate their potential partners and how they might react in particular situations, aiding their choosiness and thus their choice of mate. It also seems to be a reflection of our social world. People who daydream of their current relationships and family have been found to be more content and socially connected than those who regularly daydreamed of exes, fantasy characters, celebrities or strangers.

It's Also Important To Our Sense Of Self

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The fact that different kinds of memory are also centered in the default mode network isn't an accident. Alongside imagining alternative ideas and possibilities, daydreaming also gives us access to imagined futures and aspects of our past, according to researchers. The importance of daydreaming for knowing ourselves, particularly through memory, is pretty strong: research has found, for example, that dementia tends to affect the parts of the mind that involve the default mode network, and so produces both an inability to daydream and an inability to remember. The effects on your sense of self can be devastating. "Mind-wandering, whether its content is directly related to the thinker or not, is a self-related, self-generated, self-sustaining function," say the Israeli scientists; "it serves as an integral part of self awareness, a pre-requisite for healthy psychological functioning."

There are, however, unhealthy and pathological types of daydreaming. A professor of clinical psychology named Eli Somer came up with the idea of "maladaptive daydreaming" in 2002, elaborating on a phenomenon of addictive daydreaming: vanishing into your own imagined world for hours at a time, secretively, and choosing it over interactions with the real world, friends or family. Around a quarter of maladaptive daydreamers, according to further research by Somer and others, had been abused as children, but it's not always the case. Obsessive compulsive disorder, with its characteristic intrusive thoughts, may be an co-existing issue, but the phenomenon is rare and as yet not widely studied or included in the DSM, the main diagnostic source for psychological issues.

Daydreaming in normal amounts is, however, healthy, normal, and apparently a sign of a well-functioning and efficient brain. So don't feel ashamed when you find yourself staring out the window for the umpteenth time today. Take that, fourth grade teacher.