Do you find yourself strumming your fingers mindlessly on your desk when you have a deadline looming? Perhaps you arrive in your driveway after a long day at work, with no recollection of the drive home. Daydreaming used to be considered a waste of time that could be better spent doing something more productive. Not anymore.
A recent review published in the November issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience suggests that daydreaming may be one of the best ways to be more creative. It’s what allows the mind to go outside the box of normal thought and drift into a creative space.
In the review, psychologists from the University of British Columbia examined the way thought flows through the mind, and the different types of thoughts that are typically processed. Their findings suggest that daydreaming is actually our default state of mind, but that too often it’s short-circuited by constraints that drag our attention back to the matters at hand. “Mind-wandering is typically characterized as thoughts that stray from what you’re doing,” lead study author Kalina Christoff, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, told Nature Reviews Neuroscience. “But we propose that mind-wandering isn’t an odd quirk but rather, something that the mind does when it enters into a spontaneous mode.” Without this spontaneous mode, Christoff adds, we couldn’t do things like dream or think creatively.
If you’re looking for novel ways to solve a problem, start an essay, or approach an art project, daydreaming might help. Because when the brain is freed to wander from its responsibilities—and given the opportunity to think beyond Did I unplug my curling iron? or Don’t forget to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home!—a world of creative thought opens up. To take full advantage of the creative powers of daydreaming, consider setting aside a time every day to allow your thoughts to roam. Meditations like these can help.
Although freeing your mind to wander can promote creativity, it’s possible to let it wander too far in the wrong direction. The researchers caution against allowing your mind to drift to worries, which can trigger a vicious cycle of negative feelings and potentially lead to mental illness.
For optimum creativity, adopt a daily meditation or relaxation practice to give your mind the space to dream, but be ready to apply a gentle course-correction if your thoughts veer toward sources of stress, anger, or frustration.