Is Daydreaming Really That Bad?

Mind wandering and daydreaming are often thought of as bad things when it comes to kids.  The idea of a child being lost in thought at school, or even at home, is somehow seen as a negative thing, proof that they aren’t paying attention (as if they should always be paying attention) or are slacking off in some way.  Teachers complain to parents about it and parents complain to other parents about it.  Everyone tries to get kids to stop this horrible, horrible habit.

But is it so bad?

For years researchers seemed to side with parents and teachers in that there was no point to this type of thought, viewing it almost as wasteful.  However, recently researchers are starting to look at these types of spontaneous thoughts as being quite a bit more than a waste of time.  Why the shift?  Well, some of the first findings of note were that the brain regions associated with spontaneous thought actually overlap with the brain regions associated with goal-directed thoughts.  With this finding, it had to lead to the question of what exactly is happening during these daydreaming events?

One of the lead researchers in the field is Dr. Kalina Christoff from the University of British Columbia, who has spent more than ten years researching what she has deemed “spontaneous thought” which encompasses daydreaming and any non-planned intrusive thoughts.  A similar type of thought called “creative thought” is similar to spontaneous thought, but also includes elements of “goal-directed” thoughts.  In her research she has discovered important things about spontaneous or creative thought that may require us to think twice before we decide to scold a child for daydreaming in class or at home.

Spontaneous thought helps us solve problems.  Kids aren’t just thinking about nothing, even if they can’t actively tell you what they are daydreaming about.  The “default mode of thought”, or the neural state that humans find themselves in when daydreaming is actually a time for them to gather information broadly speaking or review previous information in order to contemplate it without too much interference from the “goal-oriented” mind.  Indeed, most humans can tell a story of when they were just daydreaming about something else when they had an “Aha!” moment; well, it seems that part of why you were able to have that moment is because you were daydreaming, taking in other information, and fitting it with what you already had.

Spontaneous thought helps with memory consolidation.  The same areas of the brain recruited at night for memory consolidation (which is done via reexperiencing then reconsolidating) are active during spontaneous thought, most notably the temporal lobes (which are also active during the moments of insight or problem solving mentioned earlier and less active during goal-directed thoughts).  Daydreaming, therefore, may be one way for the brain to experience and reconsolidate certain pieces of information.

Spontaneous thought helps us regulation emotions.  Daydreaming can actually help us handle and process our emotions by providing us opportunities to process alternate perspectives, outcomes, etc. and utilize those for our emotional benefit.  We know that daydreaming tends to focus on current concerns for an individual, and thus this process of “thinking things through” may be of more help than hindrance.


Perhaps most importantly, though, for the question of how to deal with kids in the classroom or at home who are daydreaming when we wish they wouldn’t, we have to remember: Spontaneous thought happens when attentional demands are low or non-existent.  In other words, if a kid is daydreaming it’s because you haven’t managed to get his/her attention.  The lack of focused attention is one way that the brain seems to tell itself it can move to a different type of processing.

So before jumping on the “no daydreaming” bandwagon, sit back and think about the benefits your child may be experiencing by engaging in what seems to be a rather amazing cognitive function.  And if you need them to pay attention to you, you’d better make sure you’re making it interesting enough for them or else you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.

For more on daydreaming research, you can check out UBC researcher Kalina Christoff here.

By Tracy Cassels

September 15, 2014