Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To Wake, Perchance to Dream

“He does not need opium. He has the gift of reverie.”—Anais Nin

I recently had lunch with a childhood friend I had not seen in years. We started reminiscing about secondary school and she confided that the reason why she was often so distant when we were young was because she was always in her own little world. I guess I never noticed because I was too busy playing in my own Club Med of the mind. After all, doesn’t everyone daydream?

Reaching back into my childhood, I remember my mother cautioning me against daydreaming as she considered it an unhealthy practice. One more fun thing to feel guilty about. Where did she get that idea, anyway?

Well, perhaps because daydreaming has long been associated with laziness. In the late 1800s, people were warned that grandiose fantasies were self-gratifying attempts at "wish fulfillment." Wait. Could that really be a bad thing?

Then In the 1950s—decade of white-gloved wholesomeness—some overzealous educational psychologists cautioned parents not to let their children daydream because it might pull them down into neurosis and even psychosis. Ah, shades of Reefer Madness.

Daydreaming is defined as a consciousness that occurs when we are awake, but that lies somewhere between sleep and wakefulness. Our minds begin to wander and we lose ourselves in an imagined scenario or fantasy. I, for one, very much enjoy rambling aimlessly through my own little world. It’s like a mini-vacation.

“Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Perhaps in response to unfounded predictions of daydreaming-induced doom, several studies were initiated on the subject beginning in the 1960s. Research is still being conducted  today. Here are some of the things investigators have found:
  • We all have the tendency to daydream.
  • We spend 75 to 120 minutes a day daydreaming, according to one study. Daydreaming can occupy as much as a third of our waking lives, says another study. We spend half of our day mentally wandering off, purports a third study. Based on these varying results, whatever you do, it’s normal.
  • Psychologists used to assume that we spent most of our time engaged in goal-directed thought and that, every so often, we had moments of daydreaming. According to one study, the opposite could actually be the case.
  • Brain areas associated with complex problem-solving – previously thought to be inactive when we daydream – are highly active during our netherworld episodes. In fact, MRIs indicate that our brains are much more active when we daydream than when we focus on routine tasks. 
  • More than 75 percent of workers in boring jobs use vivid daydreams to ease the boredom of routine. Less than five percent of the workers' daydreams involved explicitly sexual thoughts. Violent daydreams were also uncommon. 
  • One study found that daydreaming can contribute to your forgetting a recently learned piece of information. However, another study found that if you take a daydreaming break after multi-tasking, the mental rest can restore your ability to remember things. Go figure.
”To lose one's self in reverie, one must be either very happy, or very unhappy. Reverie is the child of extremes.” —Antoine Rivarol
  • Daydreaming can be a way to relieve stress. Or, if we use it to relive unpleasant things, it can actually increase stress.
  • Daydreaming is an important cognitive state where we may unconsciously turn our attention from immediate tasks to sort through important problems in our lives.
  • Creative people in the arts and sciences often develop new ideas through daydreaming.
  • People who daydream a lot tend to have a greater sense of empathy toward others.
“I live my daydreams in music.” —Albert Einstein

So what can we conclude from all this? We all daydream. It does not mean you’re lazy. It means you are creative or bored or both. Daydreaming is a form of mental exercise that can help us solve problems, modify stress and role-play how we and others might be feeling. We may well spend more time wandering in thought that focusing on tasks.

That would explain many things, from our current lack of progress in Congress to the way most people drive. It may also explain why I am often at a loss to answer correctly when my spouse asks “Were you  listening? What did I just say to you?”


  1. I enjoyed this article. I think several elementary school teachers of mine mentioned my daydreaming habits in the comments section of my report card. I was amazed even then as to why it was a bad thing. I never bought that swill quite frankly. My mind has always roamed free.

  2. I had a similar experience. We are now vindicated.