Daydreaming Can Be a Good Thing!

How often have you chastised your teens or tweens for staring into space, seemingly doing nothing, or simply daydreaming? You may wonder how they could possibly get anything done when they’re thinking about things that are completely unrelated to whatever they’re supposed to be doing—for example, homework, eating breakfast, or getting ready for school.

Well, new information from one of my favorite researchers, the neuroendocrinologist and Stamford professor Robert M. Sapolsky, writing in the Wall Street Journal, could improve daydreaming’s bad reputation. In fact, he argues that it can be hugely beneficial.

Scientists have learned that the brain region activted when people’s minds are wandering is part of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as working memory, decision-making, and long-term planning. In some experiments, stimulating this area of the brain increased mind-wandering yet, surprisingly, didn’t reduce task performance. It even improved a bit.

So how does daydreaming help? It turns out that it fosters creative problem-solving. You may have experienced this when you get up and take a break after trying, without success, to figure something out at work. While you get yourself a cup of coffee or run an errand, a good idea suddenly pops into your head. This has happened to me so many times that I keep a pad in my car to jot down thoughts. Truly creative solutions are usually reached after a meandering process.

Daydreaming also helps decision-making by allowing teens to imagine the outcomes of certain ideas—as well as how those results would feel to them. It’s a kind of mental rehearsal.

Finally, during repetitive or tedious tasks (which is how middle school students often describe their assignments) spacing out is a useful temporary distraction. That’s because it actually reduces the chance they’ll stop the task in favor of a more appealing one, or one that offers immediate gratification. So if a little daydreaming helps teens and tweens resist the temptations of, say, social media, I think it certainly can be a good thing!

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