Why Daydreaming Is So Good For The Brain + 4 Tips For Optimizing The Practice
Although it may seem contradictory, letting your mind wander is actually great for your mental health. The mind is always time traveling from the past to the present and back to the future—even when you're sleeping.
The great news is, you can intentionally turn these time-travel daydreaming moments into, what I call, "thinker" moments. A thinker moment is a period of time when your mind switches off of the external and on to the internal.
This term is based on The Thinker, a famous sculpture by Auguste Rodin, which captures a heroic-looking figure with his hand pensively under his chin. Upon seeing this almost imposing sculpture for the first time, I thought, How could the act of simply sitting and thinking be so formidable?
The power of daydreaming and doodling.
Daydreaming and doodling are often misperceived as distracted ways of thinking, but in reality, letting our minds wander is incredibly powerful.
In my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, I explain that when we daydream, we essentially reboot our minds. These moments give your brain a rest and allow it to heal, which increases clarity of thought and organizes neural networks.
In turn, delta activity also increases, which helps to bring up repressed thoughts. Thinker moments also increase beta activity, which is important for processing information; staying alert, focused, and attentive; and for working through something challenging.
This balanced energy increases blood flow to the brain and allows it to function more efficiently.
On the flip side, not allowing the mind to daydream or rest can reduce blood flow by up to 80% in the front of the brain, which can dramatically affect cognitive fluency and efficient associative thinking. Cumulatively, this can lead to unprocessed thoughts and nightmares, affecting your overall quality of sleep, performance, and mental health.
How to inspire daydreaming moments.
Shutting off the mind and allowing it to daydream is easier said than done. Here's how to get started:
- Close your eyes and let your mind wander.
- Become the actor, director, screenwriter, and audience of your mental performance. Start the process by intentionally thinking of something pleasant and meaningful, and let it lead you into a flow.
- As you daydream, listen to music, take a walk outside, or doodle. These moments can last anywhere from 10 seconds to a full hour.
- Be observant of your thoughts. You may be surprised by the thoughts and feelings that pop up. If that's the case, take note of them and plan to address them later. Try to avoid ruminating on those thoughts and letting them interrupt your internal rest time.
I personally like to stop and stare out a window for a few seconds when I'm trying to have a thinker moment. I find it to be helpful and invigorating—especially when I'm stressed, anxious, or in the middle of a busy workday. If possible, I also try to go outside since spending time in nature (and getting vitamin D) can significantly enhance thinker moments.
Thinker moments, like daydreaming and doodling, benefit not only your mental and physical health but also your spiritual well-being. When you give the mind a rest by letting it wander, you essentially restart the brain and allow yourself to get in touch with the deeper, nonconscious, almost spiritual, part of you.
Caroline Leaf, Ph.D, BSc, is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. She received her masters and Ph.D. in communication pathology, as well as a BSc in logopaedics from the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
During her years in clinical practice and her work with thousands of underprivileged teachers and students in her home country of South Africa and in the USA, she developed a theory about how we think, build memory, and learn (called the Geodesic Information Processing theory). The learning process has been turned into a tool for individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), learning disabilities (ADD, ADHD), autism, dementias and mental ill-health issues like anxiety and depression.
Leaf is author of Switch on Your Brain, Think Learn Succeed, Think and Eat Yourself Smart, and Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. She teaches at academic, medical and neuroscience conferences, churches, and to various audiences around the world. Dr. Leaf is also involved in the global ECHO movement, which trains physicians worldwide on the mind-brain-body connection, mental health and how to avoid physician burnout.