The Wonder of the Wandering Mind

“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.” -Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse

Milt Kobayashi, "Waiting"

Milt Kobayashi, “Waiting”

Historically speaking, daydreaming has a bad wrap. Freud was not a fan, believing that it was an infantile practice for unsatisfied adults. Textbooks warned teachers against daydreaming in the 1960s, using language comparable to that used for drug addiction. The daydreamer is commonly seen as having their “head in the clouds;” it is a sign of laziness and procrastination, a useless mental activity. Indeed, it doesn’t even make sense evolutionarily, for a distracted mind not entirely focused on survival is not a mind that will be active for very long.

These negative connotations are, to an extent, not unfounded. According to Yale researcher Jerome L. Singer, there are different types of daydreamers, and some people regularly experience daydreams induced by poor attention control, guilt, obsession, fear, or even aggression.1 However, with over 50 years of research on the topic, Singer also concludes that daydreaming is a normal part of the human experience. Positive-constructive daydreamers “simply value and enjoy their private experiences, are willing to risk wasting a certain amount of time on them, but also can apparently use them for effective planning and for self-amusement during periods of monotonous task activity or boredom.”1

So daydreaming isn’t necessarily a bad thing (fantastic news for me)! But what makes it a good thing, a productive thing?


Humans have multiple brain networks that affect the various states of consciousness we experience. Different regions of the brain team up to build what we experience as external and internal worlds.1

Our immediate interaction with the external world involves the executive brain network, the sum of brain areas that influence our cognitive control such as:

frontal eye field: voluntary eye movements
lateral frontal cortices: chooses a course of behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderates social behavior
parietal cortices: receives and processes information from the senses (i.e. the speed and location of objects)
dorolateral prefrontal cortex: “on-line” processing; integrates information from other areas of the brain to influence attention, working memory, and activity planning
inferior parietal lobe: interpretation and classification of sensory information; involved with the development of language, mathematical operations, and body image

When we dream, however (at night and during the day), the executive network is suppressed and the default mode network takes over. This network covers a fairly large area of the brain, including regions such as:

medial prefrontal cortex: long-term memory and declarative memory, including semantic memory (facts) and episodic memory (events)
hippocampus: consolidates memories for long-term storage and contributes to spatial orientation
posterior cingulate cortex: emotional experience and integration; self-referential processing (think first-person perspective or self-consciousness)
precuneus: episodic memory, visuospatial processing, self-referential processing

The Human Brain: executive brain functions (pink) and default functions (blue)

The Human Brain: executive brain functions (pink) and default functions (blue)

These two systems are usually anticorrelated, meaning that when one is on the other is off. THIS IS A GOOD THING. Altering communication between the two networks allows the brain to distinguish between fantasy and reality. A balance must be struck, of course. A strong executive network allows the working memory to control attention, allowing the brain to take in new information and work towards more immediate goals. A well-developed default network contributes to an individual’s understanding of their place in the world at large and can affect their ability to feel compassion.1


Most people have executive and default networks that turn off and on like a light switch. However, some folks have networks that function a bit more like a see-saw; both networks can function simultaneously, to a degree.

Studies have shown that creative individuals have an overactive default network. Interestingly enough, so do those suffering from schizophrenia.3 The difference lies in the individual’s control over the executive and default balance. Schizophrenics lose their grip on reality when their attention is overcome by their subconscious, whereas creative individuals are able to “engage both brain networks…[using] their working memory network to control their attention.”3

What, then, moves that see-saw up and down? The key word here appears to be latent inhibition, an evolutionary mechanism we share with other animals that allows the mind to filter through irrelevant details and focus on the task at hand:

“Focusing on every sight, sound, and thought that enters your mind can drive a person crazy. It interferes with an animal’s hunt for something to eat, or a busy person’s efforts to sleep.”4

A subtle distinction to note: latent inhibition controls our mental flexibility, not distractibility. An individual with low latent inhibition will not consider something that is irrelevant as relevant but “consider everything as potentially relevant.”3 It is performing a task while keeping one’s stream of consciousness ‘on call’.3


Archimedes being brilliant

Archimedes being brilliant

Creativity is not all genetics, though. There are many factors at play, and one of those is very much in the hands of the individual. Apparently, those AHA! moment are more likely to arise when we are doing an undemanding task.1 Creativity needs the mind to wander, to explore possibilities that may not be front-and-center, but the mind needs to track when it has wandered and when it has grasped a relevant idea.5 This is where the executive function comes in:

“while a person is occupied with one task, this system keeps the individual’s larger agenda fresher in mind…It thus serves as a kind of reminder mechanism…”5

Several studies have shown that the more creative ideas often occur when the mind has had time to incubate and not when we are throwing all of our brain power at a single goal.1 Being slightly detached from the immediate situation makes the conscious mind “more receptive to ideas generated within our subconscious.”5

Think of the work environments at Google and Pixar, with their ping-pong and foosball tables. There is a method to the madness.

Steve Vinter, head of Google Boston office, and Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, play ping pong at grand opening of Google Boston office.

Steve Vinter, head of Google Boston office, and Deval Patrick, governor of Massachusetts, play ping pong at grand opening of Google Boston office.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted a study that tested the correlation between creativity and these so-called “mindless” tasks. Subjects were asked to develop as many unusual uses for a common object as possible within a two minute time period (in the paper they refer to this as an Unusual Uses Task problem, or “UUT” problem). After performing 2 UUT problems, the subjects were given a 12-minute “incubation period,” followed by 4 more UUT problems. The subjects were graded on the originality of the their responses via a creativity index developed by the researchers.6

The variable? What the subjects were asked to do during the 12-minute incubation period. There were four groups:
1. demanding: subjects performed a complex memory task
2. undemanding: subjects responded when a signal popped up on a computer screen evey once in a while
3. rest: sat and did nothing
4. no break group: skipped the incubation period and went straight to the next 4 UUT tasks.

Results indicated that performing an undemanding task during the incubation period improved the subject’s scored by 40%, whereas the other groups showed no improvements.6


“We have this intuition that the one thing we should know is what’s going on in our mind: I think, therefore I am. It’s the last bastion of what we know, and yet we don’t even know that so well”5 -Dr. Jonathan Schooler

The mind is a wild landscape, one we like to think we know and can control. What do you have if you lose your mind, after all? Staying at the helm of the executive network seems to be of utmost importance in our fast-paced society, and we’ve grown accustomed to the constant consumption of all the scurrying little details in everyday life.

However, you cannot snag those creative thoughts by looking outside:

“…the key is to keep your wonder and excitement for the world, being open to everything in the environment as well as your own internal stream of consciousness.”3

Trevor Baylis, inventor of the clockwork radio, once said that “daydreaming allows the mind to come up with ideas and modify them like the most wonderful computer.”5 Our brains are sorely underused, the depths of their uniqueness and capacity to create too often unplumbed. Take that mind of yours to the next level! Flex those mental muscles and…dream.

A girl daydreaming during class, Florida, March 1947. Photo by Allan Grant.

A girl daydreaming during class, Florida, March 1947. Photo by Allan Grant.


1. Kaufman, Scott Barry. “Dreams of Glory.” Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness Find a Therapist. Published March 11, 2014. Last reviewed on March 20, 2014. Accessed July 02, 2014. <;.

2. Lehrer, Jonah. “The Importance of Mind-Wandering.” October 23, 0011. Accessed July 02, 2014.

3. Kaufman, Scott Barry. “Why Daydreamers Are More Creative.” Psychology Today. Published on February 27, 2011. Accessed July 02, 2014.

4. Cromie, William J. “Creativity Tied to Mental Illness.” Harvard Gazette. Harvard University. Published October 23, 2003. Accessed July 02, 2014.

5. Tierney, John. “Discovering the Virtues Of a Wandering Mind.” The New York Times. June 28, 2010. Accessed July 02, 2014.

6. Baird, Benjamin, Jonathan Smallwood, Michael D. Mrazek, Julia WY Kam, Michael S. Franklin, and Jonathan W. Schooler. “Inspired by distraction mind wandering facilitates creative incubation.” Psychological Science (2012): 0956797612446024.


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