are a daydreaming species. According to a recent study led by psychologists at Harvard, people let their minds wander forty-seven per cent of the time they are awake. However, in a culture obsessed with efficiency, mind-wandering is often derided as useless—the kind of thinking we rely on when we don’t really want to think.
In recent years, however, psychologists and neuroscientists have redeemed this mental state, revealing the ways in which mind-wandering is an essential cognitive tool. It turns out that whenever we are slightly bored—when reality isn’t quite enough for us—we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and fictive scenarios that only exist within the head.
As Virginia Woolf has eloquently described this form in her novel “To The Lighthouse,” by unfolding inside the mind of a character named Lily:
Certainly she was losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things … her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting.
A daydream is that fountain spurting, spilling strange new thoughts into the stream of consciousness. These spurts turn out to be surprisingly useful. So, here they are…
Evolutionary psychologists have found that hindsight and foresight–what you might call mental time travel–are unique to humans. Looking back on our experiences allows us to integrate them into our present time, allowing us to act with a little more wisdom. Additionally, self-generated thought allows us to consolidate our memories into a sense of self.
This is a pretty awesome survival technique: if you can anticipate what the future will be like, you can align your present actions to it, whether you’re planning to kill a mammoth or build a career.
Psychologists call the time between when you’re presented with a complex problem and you arrive at its solution as incubation. Research has shown that if you’re working on a simple task–something like brushing your teeth–letting your mind wander allows for connections to arise.
The next time you find yourself stuck in a complex problem or tired of studying, don’t be afraid to take some time off and let your mind wander. However, be careful not to let the computer or the smartphone rob you from real wandering!
How to be awesome: