Normative daydreamers spend much of their time engaged in “mind-wandering”. Mind-wandering is when an individual’s thoughts shift away from the task at hand. I think of mind wandering as the random thoughts that pop into your head when you are in the shower, or driving, or doing some other task that doesn’t require your full and undivided attention. For normative daydreamers, these thoughts are rooted in real life – replaying or reflecting on a past experience or planning for the future. But if you are an immersive or maladaptive daydreamer, you might spend far less time mind-wandering than normative daydreamers. When the real world doesn’t require your full and undivided attention, you probably have somewhere more exciting to be.
So what might we be missing out on if we don’t mind-wander? Just going by my own personal experience, I suspect there could be a few things. First, I find it hard to plan ahead. I don’t spend time thinking about what I want for lunch, so I frequently get to lunch time with no idea what I’m going to eat. Or I’ll decide to spend some time in the garden but have no idea what I want to do once I get out there. Equally, I don’t tend to learn from my mistakes, because I don’t spend a lot of time going over them in my mind.
Also, I have a hard time maintaining friendships. There are many reasons why daydreamers find it hard to make and keep friends, but in my case, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I rarely initiate contact with my friends. I let them come to me, which from their point-of-view probably feels a little one-sided. But the truth is that I don’t spend that much time thinking about my friends when I’m not with them – not because I don’t care, but because that’s my time to check in with my imaginary friends. If I mind-wandered more, I might realise that I haven’t seen someone for a while and be prompted to send them a quick text to see how they’re doing.
Mind-wandering is certainly less stimulating than daydreaming, but it serves a purpose. Just because it doesn’t come naturally to daydreamers, doesn’t mean we don’t need it. I’ve found it can be both calming and motivating to set aside a regular time for mind-wandering. But daydreaming is very much my brain’s default state. If I don’t make a conscious effort to mind-wander, then the minute I stop concentrating on what I’m doing, my brain is automatically off in my parallel world.
What works for me is to find something that requires a little bit of attention but not too much. When I’m concentrating (for example when I’m at work) I need to give 100% of my attention to the task at hand – there is no room for daydreaming or mind-wandering. But if I’m doing something that requires no attention at all (for example when I’m a passenger in a car), the daydream world wins every time. I’ve found I mind-wander best while swimming. I count lengths – the little interruption at the end of each length to add one to my mental tally is just enough to disrupt any tendency to daydream. But while I’m swimming, I can mind-wander just fine. My Saturday morning swim has become the time when I mentally review the week just gone and plan for the week ahead. It’s the time I get inspired, make connections, solve problems and process experiences. And it gives me a little bit of insight into what it must be like to be a normative daydreamer.