Daydream Believer

daydreamingAs a writer, I am intimately familiar with the appeal of daydreaming. When I catch myself doing it, a part of me wonders, is this: “Laziness?” “Inefficiency?” Procrastination?” So I was delighted to learn that daydreaming could boost “working memory capacity.”

In a recent study, researchers asked a group of volunteers to perform one of two simple tasks, neither of which would use all of their attention. The results were published in the journal Psychological Science by Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Jonathan Smallwood at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science.

Study participants were asked either to press a button in response to a letter appearing on a screen or to tap in time with their own breath. From time to time, researchers checked in to find out if participants were paying attention. Afterwards, they measured each participant’s working memory capacity by asking them to recall a string of letters interspersed with some easy math questions. What they discovered was that people with higher working memory capacity reported more mind wandering during the tasks.

Another study, led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara, asked 145 undergraduate students to list as many uses as possible for ordinary items such as clothes hangers and toothpicks. Afterwards, they took a 12-minute break in which they rested in a quiet room, performed a challenging memory task or did something boring that might induce daydreaming. The students who were given the boring task came up with 41{10058f2385f70e38f97c9f6fa0bcd7521a9610310e2b24a83a1073d40b598246} more possibilities than the other students.

“We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem,” says Schooler. “That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself.”*

Which may explain why I find so many ideas outside my windows. When I am struggling with a paragraph that just won’t jell, I find that a little bit of daydreaming – looking at the leaves fluttering in the breeze, for example – can help me pull it all together. Similarly, a task unrelated to writing can lead to precious insight. Sometimes the right words appear fully formed in my mind when I am standing in front of the coffee machine, which inevitably sends me back to my computer at a run.

So whether you write for a living or you write dozens of emails a day, give your mind some room to wander. It might just give you a few more of those “ah-ha” moments. And oh my – don’t they taste sweet? They have truly made me a daydream believer.

*Lehrer, Jonah, “The Virtues of Daydreaming, The New Yorker, June 5, 2012.

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