Exploring the Ups and Downs of Daydreaming

Science reveals they're more fraught with anxiety than we might have thought

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What is beneficial and harmful about daydreaming?
Konstantinos Agiannis/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / March 24, 2020 6:32 am

Daydreaming has a strange hold over the collective imagination. The continuing popularity of James Thurber’s 1939 story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”  — which has spawned multiple film adaptations — is among the biggest signifiers of that. But what does it mean when a reader’s mind, already enmeshed in a narrative of some sort, takes off into a flight of fancy? That’s a question that How Attention Works author Stefan Van der Stigchel explored in an article at Literary Hub.

Van der Stigchel explores two seemingly disparate elements: the way daydreaming affects what we read and the neuroscience that helps explore the nature of daydreaming. Delving further into the science of daydreaming offers an interesting perspective on it:

The neural activity that can be observed when a person is daydreaming is very similar to that found in the default network. The control situation when taking neural measurements is also one in which the brain is not performing any tasks, and so we start daydreaming. We let our thoughts run free and start associating different memories with each other.

Among the ways that Van der Stigchel explores daydreaming is via a Harvard study, which in turn offered some seemingly contradictory data. Participants, he writes, spent 47% of their time daydreaming — but those weren’t the idle flights of fancy that one might associate with daydreams. The majority of the daydreams fell into the “unpleasant” category. It’s an unnerving way of thinking of daydreams — fewer thoughts of a better existence, and more anxious pondering about the future.

This is one of several scientific studies that Van der Stigchel cites in here. Another one, he notes, points out that “daydreaming is actually concentration gone wrong.” It’s a fascinating look into the inner workings of the human mind — and a revisionist way of thinking about how we think.

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