An Ode To Spacing Out


Today only 6 percent of studies note the functional benefits of mind wandering. But in the 1960s psychologist Jerome L. Singer launched research which demonstrated that daydreaming is crucial for a healthy, satisfying mental life. His research is a kind of ode to spacing out: his work focused on what he identified to be positive constructive daydreaming which he found consisted of playful imagery, and playful creative thought.

It’s a refreshing, and somewhat relieving perspective to hear — considering that mind-wandering is a universal human experience. In fact, in the time that I wrote this piece, I’ve drifted into thought about the effects of walking, or completing tasks which require little mental focus, and the effects they have on continuing with tasks that require stronger cognitive focus. And bingo: researchers from Bar Ilan University in Israel found that daydreaming can actually boost task performance.

But there’s an important distinction to made between positive constructive daydreaming (pad) and procrastination — or poor attentional control. PCD refers more to playful imagery and playful creative thoughts, whereas say, constantly shifting from task-to-task, such as the fallacious notion of multi-tasking, and being able to stay focused, refers more to an inability to concentrate.

But Singer had also found a correlation between daydreaming frequency, measures of creativity, and storytelling activity. In his recent review Singer et al summed the benefits of mind wandering neatly in this excerpt:

We mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event. Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp, is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us finally to understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.


featured image: Lisa Ruokis / Flickr CC


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