Daydreaming is not slacking off. It’s key to creativity and innovation


By Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin E. P. Seligman

One of the most important neuroscientific discoveries of our lifetime was that of the default mode network (DMN), a set of brain regions involved in our mental downtime. Like many of the most significant scientific discoveries, it was made by accident.

Functional imaging researchers were mapping out the brain’s “task positive” networks, those regions that light up when we engage in focused tasks like anagrams or arithmetic. In most of these experiments, there was also a control condition, consisting of rest periods (“just lie there and don’t do anything”). We might expect the brain to go dark and quiet while resting. Instead, a reliable network of midline and medial temporal lobe brain structures would consistently light up, suggesting not stasis but vibrant activity. This same network activates whenever we let our mind wander, as when we daydream.

Consider the significance of that. When nothing else is going on, the brain doesn’t just “power down.” Instead, it switches into a new mode of thinking, one so vital that it is our default—the activity our brain jumps to in every free moment. What is so important about this activity? It specializes in two processes: imagining and planning.

Chandra Sripada describes what it feels like to experience the default mode as follows:

The content is quasi-perceptual and imagistic: autobiographical memories of remote events, replays of more recent events, prospections into the near and distant future. The transitions between individual thoughts are discursive. There are often thematic associations between adjacent thought items but also substantial discontinuities. This kind of meandering thought stream is ideal for identifying interesting patterns and relationships. Thoughts are juxtaposed next to others in unpredictable and partially random ways, thus enabling implicit learning systems to “observe” these novel thought streams (in the same way they would observe actual unfolding events in the world) and extract new patterns, generalizations, interpretations, and insights.

We are all familiar with the spontaneous oscillating of our attention. It’s happening to you as you read this, in fact. Every minute or two, your attention will drift off into a daydream. You’ll stay there for maybe a minute, then catch yourself and go back to attending to the reading. During mind-wandering, the default network is on and attention veers away from the specific task toward daydreaming. In this realm, our mind breaks the bonds of space and time, blending memory and fantasy. When we then return to our task at hand, the task positive network turns back on and attention shifts away from day- dreaming. These oscillations—on the order of seconds or minutes—recur all day long.

Sripada understands this oscillation as an eternal cycle between exploitation and exploration. Task positive thinking is efficient; it respects space and time, gathering existing information about the world and exploiting these knowns. The default network explores new possibilities by imagining scenes that can differ radically from the actual past and the actual present. Such vivid, fantastic imagery allows us to discover and learn deeply about what does not yet exist.

Using the task positive network, we attend to the history book and we encode the fact that Franklin Roosevelt succeeded Herbert Hoover as president. But when, in the next moment, we picture Herbert Hoover as a giant vacuum, which leads us to the vacuum of space which leads to wondering about what it would feel like to live on Mars, we’re doing something critically important for our brains.

As we feel increasingly starved for time, we might be tempted to rein in our attention tighter and tighter, to grind ceaselessly and cut down on mental “downtime.” Even if that were possible, it would be undesirable. The default mode is often where our best ideas come from. It’s the default for a reason, and we ignore it at our own hazard.

Daydreaming serves a useful purpose—it is essential to creative work. Our innovative ideas emerge first from the DMN, where spontaneous, preconscious ideas can connect and attach. Many of these will be gibberish—think salami driveway—but a few will offer enough value to pique the interest of other networks in the brain, which sense, refine, and develop ideas. There is much more to this process in the brain, but it all starts with the generation of novel and surprising ideas by the DMN. Daydreaming is a feature of the mind, not a bug. 

Copyright © 2023 by Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin E. P. Seligman. Excerpted from the book Tomorrowmind: Thriving at Work with Resilience, Creativity, and Connection—Now and in an Uncertain Future by Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin E. P. Seligman. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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