Daydreams as a Tool for Problem-Solving
Daydreams can be the key to solving social problems, achieving goals, and harnessing creative breakthroughs.
Daydreaming gets a bad rap. We’re told to stop wasting time. Pay attention. Get our head out of the clouds. We all know the image of the lazy fantasizer frittering away time. But what if that picture is wrong? What if there are times when daydreaming is the best use of our time?
What if daydreams are the key to solving social problems, achieving goals, and creative breakthroughs?
Most of us spend a lot of time in daydreams. Researchers estimate we spend 25-50% of our waking hours paying attention to things other than the task at hand. Former Yale psychologist Jerome Singer, the father of daydreaming research, questioned why our minds would roam so much if the activity was useless. As it turns out, it’s not. Sometimes daydreams give us a mental break to refresh and re-focus on an intense task. Other times we drift off because routine tasks and familiar environments don’t use enough of our brainpower, so we shift our attention to more interesting and personally meaningful things.
University of Minnesota psychologist Eric Klinger calls this more meaningful content “current concerns.” Typically, daydreams are about ourselves, our plans and desires. Frequently we daydream about other people, interpersonal relationships, and far less commonly, objects. Mind wanderings are usually realistic too, rather than physically impossible, socially inappropriate, or distortions of reality. We’re social creatures who have aspirations and belonging needs, so it makes sense to attend to personal goals and navigating social situations, especially when problems or uncertainty exists.
The methods we use when in daydreams are remarkably like those we use at work. We project ourselves into future situations, consider the past in light of new information, rehearse anticipated roles or circumstances, imagine scenarios, and ask “what if.” In short, we plan. We problem-solve. We imagine.
Your Brain and Daydreams
Daydreaming definitely isn’t the brain on idle. In fact, it’s using more energy than when we’re performing routine, repetitive tasks even though we’re relaxed. The brain is free-associating, rummaging through our subconscious.
When we daydream, we’re in a liminal state similar to night dreaming. In fact, these two dream states use overlapping brain regions, neuroscientists have found. With daydreaming, we’re semi-alert yet detached enough from our physical surroundings to be receptive to sensations, information, and ideas being generated just below consciousness. When insights occur, they pop into our awareness spontaneously, holistically and they’re usually realistic. We’re likely to remember them too.
Singer called this form of mind drifting “playful, wishful, and planful.” For most of us, most of the time, daydreams feel good or are emotionally neutral. But it’s important to note that for some people, ruminating or obsession can take over. Their mind wandering is mostly focused on the past and may be depressive or anxiety-filled.
Having daydreams is natural, but we usually do it unintentionally. Sometimes though, we shift into it deliberately. Some people, especially artists, induce daydreaming for inspiration. There are quite a few instances of scientists using it too, even Nobel Prize winners whose insights came through daydreaming following intense periods of studying their subject matter. Einstein discovered relativity theory this way.
Besides being enjoyable, the kinds of things we daydream about and the processes we use suggest relatively untapped capacity and enormous potential, if we drift deliberately.
Research on intentional daydreaming for practical purposes is scant. Based on what we know about daydreaming and my own experience with it over decades, I’ll offer a few suggestions.
- Give yourself permission. A world where daydreaming is considered a waste of time, or the domain of fuzzy thinkers and the fantasy-prone can make us reticent to allow for and work with our daydreams.
- Set the conditions to enhance the potential. Relax in safe conditions when your mind has extra bandwidth and your body is protected. For me, that’s usually in the bathtub, exercising, or doing routine housework that doesn’t require knives.
- Make the shift. Don’t stay locked onto the problem. What I find helpful at times is paying attention to my body, muscles moving, heartbeat, those repetitive actions that set the stage for musing. I’ve left whatever problem my brain was chewing on behind. Or so I assume. But my subconscious is holding it, letting it slosh around beneath my conscious awareness incubating a solution.
- Consider your intent. Stuck on a problem or want to explore a specific interest? Set that general intent, but release the problem itself. Let your mind wander. Imagine scenarios. Play with “what ifs.”
- Looking for something new? Let your mind meander without any prompting or priming. This could be the best way to come up with novel insights, things you might not have been conscious of at all.
Remember, daydreaming is akin to dreaming, so sometimes what arises isn’t literal even if realistic. It may need interpretation and evaluation.
Notice what arises, but evaluate it later—so you don’t shut the process down.
“Choosing to disengage from the external environment, turning attention inward, and following your internal stream of thought with full awareness takes skill,” Singer said. The capacity may be more developed in some than others, but it can be learned.