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Daydreaming can help you — if you do it right

The science and benefits of daydreaming explained.

The concept, and practice, of mindfulness is a darling of the mental health space for its ability to reduce rumination, reduce stress, and boost working memory.

However — you can’t be mindful all of the time. Markus Baer, a professor of organizational behavior at Olin Business School, had that truth on his mind when considering research on workplace mindfulness. The brain wanders around 40 percent of the day, Baer tells Inverse. Given the frequency of this state, could there be any benefits?

Baer, along with co-authors Erik Dane and Héctor Madrid, investigated – angling their research towards daydreaming. Their results were published on July 1 in the Academy of Management Journal.

Ultimately, they found that daydreaming at work can benefit you — if done in specific circumstances. Daydreaming can boost creativity, and that creativity can guide you toward solutions for problems you’ve struggled to solve. However, those benefits only come if you enjoy the work you’re taking a break from.

“The greatest value is derived by people who identify with their profession and their work — like someone who sees themselves as an architect rather than an employee of an architecture firm,” Baer says. “People who see themselves as a ‘person who just works here’ will not reap the benefits of daydreaming.”

Daydreaming outside of work, meanwhile, comes with its own unique benefit: As a mental vacation.

Daydreaming and creativity — Baer and his colleagues’ study stems from an evaluation of 332 professionals between the ages of 33.9 and 35.9.

It was divided into two parts: In the first, employees in a spectrum of industries were asked to keep diaries of work problems, and how often they engaged in two types of daydreaming — “problem-oriented daydreams” or “bizarre daydreams.” They were also asked how often they thought of new ideas and solutions throughout the day. In the second study, employees of technology consulting companies were asked when and how often they daydreamed, while their supervisors rated their creativity.

"In our daydreams, we imagine new possibilities, realistic or unrealistic."

Across both studies, workers were more likely to daydream when they encountered a challenge they needed to solve, and daydreams boosted their creativity — if they identified with the work they were doing. If they did not identify with their work, daydreaming compromised their performance.

“In our daydreams, we imagine new possibilities, realistic or unrealistic,” Baer says. “At the heart of creativity is the generation of new and valuable ideas. Thus, our daydreams provide one avenue into such novel worlds.”

Other studies have also found a link between daydreaming and creativity: In a 2017 study published in the journal Neuropsychologia scientists evaluated the brain patterns of over 100 people while they were in an MRI machine. The participants were asked how often their minds wandered. Ultimately, they found that people who daydreamed the most also scored the highest for intellectual and creative ability and had the most efficient brain systems.

Christine Godwin is a cognitive neuroscientist at Apple and was a lead co-author of this study. She tells Inverse that the way the brain supports ever-fluctuating dynamics — like when the mind wanders — “has really important implications for thinking and performance.” When it comes to whether or not daydreaming is actually good for you, context is key, Godwin says.

“Of course there are times when you need to focus on something and daydreaming can be a bad thing, but other times daydreaming lets you come up with new ideas, and make connections between concepts that you wouldn’t have come up with by typical problem solving,” Godwin explains. “And of course, daydreaming can just be a fun mental escape too.”

Daydreaming the right way — For now, it is not well understood how to control the content of daydreams — or if daydreams are controllable at all, Baer says.

However, his work, along with the research of others, does suggest some strategies: Generally, it is helpful to deeply engage in challenging work. Then, Baer says, when you do inevitably encounter an impasse, “giving the mind permission to wander is a valuable strategy.”

“When one gets stuck on a challenging problem, rather than forcing the mind to work it out consciously, it is valuable to allow for daydreams to occur,” he says. “One should not dismiss the content of the daydreams as being irrelevant, as our research suggests that both problem-focused and utterly bizarre daydreams have utility.”

Godwin also recommends attempting to maintain a level of meta-awareness of your thoughts as you daydream.

“That way you can catch interesting ideas or answers to problems that arise, and stop daydreaming if you start thinking negative thoughts or ruminating too much on problems or concerns,” she says.

Godwin likes daydreaming. So does Baer. He says his new study is especially close to his heart because, as a child, he was reprimanded for daydreaming by his teachers.

“I was labeled as a daydreamer and made to feel guilty,” Baer remembers. “This paper has great personal significance because it clearly shows there are benefits of daydreaming.”

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