Daydreaming has long been criticized as a pursuit of slackers and time-wasters. For a while in the 1950s, it was even thought excessive daydreaming could lead children into psychosis (a theory that has since been thoroughly disproved). Daydreams are more than escapes from humdrum afternoons: They are critical workings of the human mind. They bring us wisdom and creativity, and have likely been the flicker of life for many great works of art, film and literature. And according to research, if you can learn to embrace daydreams, you can gain powerful insights into the world and your future, and maybe even create something beautiful of your own.
Experts now believe daydreaming is the normal, default state of the brain. A Harvard University study published in Science found that unless there is an engaging problem in front of you, your mind will likely wander. But surely it can’t be beneficial to be distracted? Well, yes it can. Researchers say daydreams may be a kind of ‘spontaneous mental time travel.’ While our physical selves are stuck in the present, our minds can flit into the past or future any time we want, according to a study from the University of Queensland in Australia published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. We can reminisce about our lost days as an unruly teenager, fume over last week’s argument with a friend, or imagine ourselves at our sister’s wedding looking fabulous in a new clingy dress.
Eric Klinger, professor emeritus from the University of Minnesota, spent much of his career studying this topic. ‘Daydreaming has a learning function. When you daydream about things that have already happened, you review the events and think about alternatives. So if you remember going to a party, you might think, What would have happened if I’d said something different?’ he says.
In the same way, projecting into the future makes us smarter about our choices. ‘Daydreaming has a rehearsal function,’ says Klinger. ‘So if something important is coming up, you might play out different scenarios of what to do.’
As mental time travelers, we can review, rehearse and learn to understand our lives, without endlessly repeating ourselves. When our minds wander, it happens so instinctively that we often don’t realize we’re doing it. Our daydreams may arrive spontaneously, but we can learn to direct them. Almost all of our ambitions start life as daydreams. Paintings, books, buildings and companies all start as a quirky idea in the mind of their creator.
Even physicists have used daydreams in their work. When Einstein was 16, he tried to visualize what a light beam would look like if he travelled alongside it at the speed of light. He mused on the idea for nine years while studying physics, until he arrived at a realization: It’s impossible to travel at the speed of light. Historians now believe that part of Einstein’s genius can be linked to his daydreaming. His unconscious mind took his thoughts in radical and revolutionary directions.
In 1913, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung created a technique called active imagination (see below), using daydreams to help the unconscious mind work on the problems of the conscious mind. Jung was in emotional chaos at the time and began using his feelings as the basis for free visualizations to try to overcome his inner turmoil and heal himself. He found it gave him insights he hadn’t been able to see before.
While we are busy managing our lives, our unconscious minds are chewing over problems and thoughts we may not even be aware of. Daydreaming is our invisible connection to our own innate wisdom and creativity.
Of course, there are times when you have to concentrate on what you’re doing. But it’s also productive to set aside time to allow yourself to daydream, and learn to embrace the peculiar and surprising directions that your mind wants to explore.
How to daydream
Carl Jung’s technique of active imagination can help to flesh out ideas and analyze emotions or problems. Here’s how to tune in to your unconscious.
Find the right place
Find an environment where you can be alone to think. You might want to sit in a chair with your eyes closed, or simply go for a walk, run or bike ride by yourself.
Let your mind drift
Pick an idea’anything that pops into your mind or something specific that’s been on your mind’and allow your thoughts to flow from there. Don’t censor or worry about the direction your thoughts go in’let them run free. You might visualize scenarios, or you might simply hear a stream of thoughts running through your head. To expand your thought process, it can be useful to ask questions, too. Imagine telling someone about the idea or problem. Allow yourself to visualize freely, even if the images or scenarios don’t make sense.
Write it all down
Afterwards, try writing down or sketching freely what you have seen, heard or felt in your mind’s eye. Don’t search for solutions; just accept that they may come as you need them.
Do it all over again
Keep using this technique, and eventually you will recognize patterns or discover insights. It can take days or it can take years, but Jung’s active imagination technique can help you tap into your unconscious potential.