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At long last, the doodling daydreamer is getting some respect.
In the past, daydreaming was often considered a failure of mental discipline, or worse. Freud labeled it infantile and neurotic. Psychology textbooks warned it could lead to psychosis. Neuroscientists complained that the rogue bursts of activity on brain scans kept interfering with their studies of more important mental functions.
But now that researchers have been analyzing those stray thoughts, they’ve found daydreaming to be remarkably common — and often quite useful. A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals. Sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems.
Consider, for instance, these three words: eye, gown, basket. Can you think of another word that relates to all three? If not, don’t worry for now. By the time we get back to discussing the scientific significance of this puzzle, the answer might occur to you through the “incubation effect” as your mind wanders from the text of this article — and, yes, your mind is probably going to wander, no matter how brilliant the rest of this column is.
Mind wandering, as psychologists define it, is a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into “task-unrelated thoughts,” that’s mind wandering.
During waking hours, people’s minds seem to wander about 30 percent of the time, according to estimates by psychologists who have interrupted people throughout the day to ask what they’re thinking. If you’re driving down a straight, empty highway, your mind might be wandering three-quarters of the time, according to two of the leading researchers, Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“People assume mind wandering is a bad thing, but if we couldn’t do it during a boring task, life would be horrible,” Dr. Smallwood says. “Imagine if you couldn’t escape mentally from a traffic jam.”
You’d be stuck contemplating the mass of idling cars, a mental exercise that is much less pleasant than dreaming about a beach and much less useful than mulling what to do once you get off the road. There’s an evolutionary advantage to the brain’s system of mind wandering, says Eric Klinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and one of the pioneers of the field.
“While a person is occupied with one task, this system keeps the individual’s larger agenda fresher in mind,” Dr. Klinger writes in the Handbook of Imagination and Mental Stimulation. [Click here.] “It thus serves as a kind of reminder mechanism, thereby increasing the likelihood that the other goal pursuits will remain intact and not get lost in the shuffle of pursuing many goals.”
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John Tierney, whose column appears Tuesdays and Saturdays on the Op-Ed page, has been with The New York Times since 1990. He wrote about New York in “The Big City” column, which ran from 1994 to 2002, first in The New York Times Magazine and then twice a week in The Times‘s Metro Section. From 2002 until 2005, except for a stint in 2003 in the Baghdad bureau, he was a correspondent in the Washington bureau, and wrote the weekly “Political Points” column during the 2004 presidential campaign.