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Why do we daydream? The psychology of daydreaming

You’re studying for a particularly hard test that’s around the corner and feel that you haven’t covered as much of the syllabus as you wanted to by now.

You begin trying to solve a problem that you think will take you 10 minutes to solve but 15 minutes later you find that your mind has wandered off into a daydream and you haven’t even reached midway towards solving the problem.

What’s going on? Why do our minds drift off into imaginary worlds instead of concentrating on the task at hand?

We daydream a lot

It is estimated that around half of the time of our waking life is spent daydreaming. If daydreaming is so frequent and common, it must have some evolutionary advantage. To get an idea of what that advantage might be we need to look at the stuff of our daydreams are made of.

In a nutshell, most of our daydreams revolve around our life goals. What people daydream about depends on their unique personality and needs but there are also common themes. People usually daydream about the memories of their past, the problems they're grappling with currently and how they expect, or don't expect, their lives to unfold in the future.

According to an article published in the National Geographic, most daydreams are about the future. This suggests that a key function of daydreaming is to allow us to prepare and plan for our future. By visualizing what our future may hold, we can think of possible obstacles that might hinder us from reaching our life goals and, therefore, find a way around those obstacles.

Daydreaming about what’s going on in our current life allows to us to reflect on what these experiences have taught us so that we may be better equipped to deal with similar scenarios in the future. If we're facing any challenges presently, daydreaming enables to ruminate over these challenges to search for a viable solution. 

Daydreaming about the past may also function to help us incorporate important life lessons into our psyche. Since people usually daydream more of the good things that happened to them in the past, it indicates a wish to relive those experiences. So a good fraction of daydreams, like night dreams, are an exercise in wish-fulfillment which may also include fantasies.

Another known fact about daydreaming is that we daydream lesser as we age and this makes sense because when we are older there’s not much future left for us to visualize. We have, more or less, for better or worse, reached some of our most important life goals.
daydreaming cartoon
Daydreams of men and women

Since men and women play different evolutionary roles, it makes sense to predict that there must be some differences in the content of their daydreams. Generally, men’s daydreams are ‘conquering hero’ daydreams where they daydream about being successful, powerful, overcoming personal fears and gaining appreciation. This is consistent with the evolutionary goal of men trying to climb up the ladder of social status. 

On the other hand, women’s daydreams tend to be the ‘suffering martyr’ type where people close to them realize how wonderful they are and regret not counting on them or doubting their character. Such daydreams may also involve family members begging for reconciliation. These are basically relationship-reparative daydreams and consistent with the more relationships-oriented psychology of women. (see Where do gender differences in behavior come from)  

Daydreams and creative problem solving

Although daydreaming is frowned upon by teachers in classrooms, many people have claimed that they got their best ideas and eureka moments when they were daydreaming. How do daydreams generate creative ideas?

When you’re solving a problem, you tend to have a single-minded focus on it. Your train of thought is narrow and focused. You think along set patterns of thought. Therefore, there is little scope to explore creative ways of thinking. Sometimes, when you’ve given a problem to yourself, the conscious mind delegates it to the subconscious mind which begins working on solving it in the background.

Even if your subconscious does find a solution, it may not necessarily be accessible to your consciousness. This is because you’re thinking in restricted ways and there’s nothing in your stream of consciousness that may connect to the solution your subconscious may have come up with. As you let your mind wander, you start combining and recombining ideas and it is likely that a new thought generated by this process connects with the solution of your subconscious giving you a light bulb, a stroke of insight, an inspiration.

Studies show that the same areas of the brain are active when we daydream that are active when we are solving a complex problem.1 Hence, we are likely to drift into a daydream when we have challenging life problems to solve.

Daydreaming is a form of dissociation

Though daydreaming can help you rehearse for probable future events, learn from the past, deal with current challenges and provide creative insight, it is well to remember that daydreaming is basically dissociation- a separation from reality.

Why would your mind want to dissociate from reality? There can be many reasons. For one, the current reality may be unbearable. So, in order to avoid pain, the mind seeks an escape in a reverie. Notice how we don’t usually daydream when we’re having fun- say eating delicious food or having sex. It is, instead, things like a boring college lecture or having to prepare for a tough exam that triggers our daydreaming.

Similarly, daydreaming can also provide an escape from a low mood. Studies show that when people daydream they’re usually unhappy.2 Moreover, it is known that negative moods lead the mind to wander.3 It is likely that daydreaming is triggered during a low mood to either escape from it or counter it by imagining desirable scenarios. 

The next time you find that your mind has wandered off into the lands of imagination, it may be helpful to ask yourself, “What am I trying to avoid?” 



References

1. Christoff, K., Gordon, A. M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R., & Schooler, J. W. (2009). Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences106(21), 8719-8724.

2. Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science330(6006), 932-932.

3. Smallwood, J., Fitzgerald, A., Miles, L. K., & Phillips, L. H. (2009). Shifting moods, wandering minds: negative moods lead the mind to wander. Emotion9(2), 271.