You’re sitting in a meeting, listening to your boss drone on about something you already know in front of a miniature ficus. You start staring at the small, potted plant, and before you know it, you’re on an island in the Maldives, being served a glistening glass of rum and coke, the seabreeze gently caressing your sun-kissed skin. A group of Australian guys are playing volleyball nearby and invite you to join. You say, “Sure, why not?” and soon you’re planning a trip with them to go scuba-diving off the coast of Singapore and, who knows, maybe… Why, yes Mr. Franklin, I do have those annual reports right here.
All of us do a little bit of daydreaming, but too much can seem like an embarrassing indulgence, a sign of laziness, an inability to focus on the reality at hand, a dangerous form of procrastination, and a propensity to escape into a world that has no tangible merit. In short: a total waste of time.
But a new study named “Functional connectivity within and between intrinsic brain networks correlates with trait mind wandering,” published in the journal Neuropsychologia, suggests that, actually, daydreaming might not be such a bad thing. In fact, in can actually be good for you, and a sign that you’re smarter and more creative than your live-in-the-moment peers.
Georgia Institute of Technology associate psychology professor Eric Schumacher and Cognition and Brain Science Ph.D. student Christine Godwin, who co-authored the study, asked 100 participants to focus on a stationary fixation point for five minutes while lying in an MRI machine. They used this data to measure how brain patterns relate to various cognitive abilities when one is awake verses resting, and, coupled with a questionnaire on daydreaming that was filled out by participants, found that those who reported more frequent daydreaming scored higher on intellectual and creative ability and had more efficient brain systems measured in the MRI machine.
“People tend to think of mind wandering as something that is bad. You try to pay attention and you can’t,” Schumacher said. “Our data are consistent with the idea that this isn’t always true. Some people have more efficient brains.”
It makes sense. As Schumacher noted, “people with efficient brains may have too much brain capacity to stop their minds from wandering.” When there isn’t something riveting enough going on to captivate your ingenious brain, then, it will come up with other things to do, sort of like a prolific toddler.
Not all daydreaming is good, however. Apparently, the difference between being a creative genius and, say, a space cadet, lies with the ability to tune out and daydream during unnecessary distractions and then seamlessly tune back into the task at hand when prompted.
“Our findings remind me of the absent-minded professor—someone who’s brilliant, but off in his or her own world, sometimes oblivious to their own surroundings,” said Schumacher. “Or school children who are too intellectually advanced for their classes. While it may take five minutes for their friends to learn something new, they figure it out in a minute, then check out and start daydreaming.”
So there’s your next litmus test next time you’re on a boring date or a lunch with dad.