Daydreaming gets a bad rap. How many times were you scolded by teachers or parents for letting your mind wander when you were supposed to be paying attention to something else? And even now, while you're at work, you may feel flashes of guilt when you realize you've been far, far away mentally. Isn't that project due in a few hours?

Well, you can drop the guilt trip. Recent research conducted at the University of British Columbia in Canada reveals that not only is daydreaming extremely common (experts say we spend one-third of our lives doing it), but it's actually healthy. It turns out that when we let our minds wander, numerous areas of the brain are activated, more than were previously thought. And we're not even aware we're doing it.

In this study, scientists placed subjects inside a special scanner and had them perform a routine task. Their attentiveness was gauged using brain scans, their performance on the task, and reports by subjects themselves. Not only did the parts of the subjects' brains responsible for easy mental tasks activate, but so did the so-called "executive network," responsible for processing more complicated thoughts and problems.

What does this mean? When you put aside that tough math problem after working on it for an hour in order to sit on your porch and stare at the flowers, it doesn't mean you're lazy or too easy to give up. It means your brain is smart enough to recognize that switching to a more mundane activity allows complex thought to take place. By letting your mind wander, you're allowing it to hit on the solutions to problems that may have eluded you before. In fact, many creative people claim that they get their best ideas while doing something routine, such as taking a shower or going for a run. And some of the smartest kids in school may spend part of their classroom time doodling or staring out the window. Teachers or bosses may not approve of your daydreaming, but it is generally a healthy thing.

Of course, if daydreaming takes up so much of your time that you're having trouble getting even basic chores completed, you probably should learn to focus a little more. Otherwise, don't worry about those mental "time-outs" that reenergize and refresh you for the tasks at hand.



Source: Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J. Smith, R., Schooler, J.W.  Experience Sampling During fMRI Reveals Default Network and Executive System Contributions to Mind Wanering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 11, 2009.