Daydreaming used to be considered a waste of time—until now. Psychologists at UNC Greensboro have found it’s good for you, because the body needs time to be off-task, rest and recharge.

GREENSBORO — Have you ever found yourself driving home and, as you are driving, you start thinking about events that happened during the day or try to work through the possible options to a difficult project? Suddenly you pull in the driveway and realize you have no idea how you got there.

Or have you found yourself at work typing a document when you start thinking about what you want to do during an upcoming vacation? What about when you are studying for a test and you start replaying in your mind the fun time you had at a party a few days before?

Those are all examples of what psychologists call “off-task behavior.” You might also describe what’s happening by another term — mind-wandering. Some people even call it daydreaming.

“I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about daydreaming,” says Dr. Michael Kane, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “It depends on the context in which you are mind-wandering. If you are an air traffic controller or a surgeon, mind-wandering at certain times could be very bad.”

Kane has been looking into mind-wandering and his research finds, on average, we spend about one third of our time being off-task.

“So there clearly are some contexts in which it is important to think about what you are doing, otherwise you make mistakes,” adds Kane. “But there’s a lot of what we do in daily life on which we don’t have to concentrate, such as routine activities we do everyday.”

To study off-task behavior, researchers gave test subjects palm pilots and asked them to carry the devices throughout the day. When the devices beeped, the subject was asked to keep track of what they were doing and whether they were on task or daydreaming.

Three studies using students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that while the average amount of time spent off-task or mind-wandering was 30%, the actual amount of time varied widely. It also depended on the individual. Some people reported almost never being off task while others were off task almost 90% of the time. The amount of time people spent off-task depended on what they were doing and how they felt about the activity.

In general, the study determined people mind-wander whenever they are bored with what they are doing. It also found many times people don’t realize they are mind-wandering. Routine tasks are simply accomplished.

“We found that if people are doing something boring or if what they are doing is making them anxious or stressed or they would simply prefer to be doing something else, their minds are more likely to wander,” says Kane. “But if they are happy, if they are doing something they are good at, or if they are trying to concentrate, they tend to be more focused.”

And that begs the question... Can mind-wandering be controlled? Can a person really concentrate on one thing and force him or herself not to daydream?

To find out, subjects were brought into the lab and asked to complete specific tasks. The study found that while concentration helped a person to stay on task, the amount of time people spend mind-wandering is pretty stable. Researchers also found a correlation between short-term memory and mind-wandering.

"People who mind-wander a lot in their lives tend to mind-wander in the lab tests, so there is some pretty stable evidence about people’s propensity to mind-wander,” says Kane, who suggests our minds are hard-wired to daydream.

The study then turned to the obvious question: If mind-wandering or daydreaming plays such a large part in our lives, why do we do it? Researchers didn’t find a connection between creativity and mind-wandering, so the study suggests mind-wandering is simply a way to rest the brain.

“It appears that mind-wandering is just a way to get out of our current moment,” suggests Bridget Smeekens, a graduate student in psychology who helped coordinate the study. “For example, if you are in traffic, mind-wandering is a way to not have to exist in every moment in traffic on our way home. Without mind-wandering, you would go crazy just sitting in traffic. It’s a way for the brain to take a break from daily life and concentrate on other things.”

Kane points to all of the activities in daily life in which you don’t really have to concentrate, such as habits and well-known routines. He suggests that in those times when you are doing something fairly well practiced and automatic, daydreaming is a way to use the brain’s amazing power to think about other projects or events in your life.

“It makes sense to use the additional cognitive capability you have to escape the here and now and do some mental work on other projects you may have,” adds Kane. “You may have a personal problem you need to work through or you may have a challenging intellectual problem, and one of the things about the human mind is you can work on those things even though they are not right in front of us at the moment.”

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