What your mind doesn’t do while you’re daydreaming

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.

4 thoughts on “What your mind doesn’t do while you’re daydreaming”

  1. Interesting! My mind-wandering function is still there, but there are very few moments for it. Certainly not bedtime. Nor the shower, nor walking, nor cooking.
    I hadn’t noticed how accidentally I stumble upon mind-wandering now.
    Daydreaming has taken over even the gaps in my time.
    And everytime I let my mind wander, it’s always negative. All I do is go over my mistakes and kick myself over them. More often than not, mind-wandering pushes me into daydreaming to soothe my hurt feelings, and the passage from one to the other is very smooth.
    There’s enough real life taking me away from my DD world, adding mind-wandering is more than I can tolerate. One becomes a less functioning person, no doubt.
    Friends? That’s a thing from the past. No more friends for me. I have no hope in other humans anymore, I do not believe a human that understands my problems commiting, leaving the house, getting places, staying, will come my way.
    I will keep looking at my mind-wandering habits and see if I can make that conscious effort you mention.

    1. Yes, I agree. Negative mind-wandering – rumination – can be a powerful daydream trigger. I’ve found that when I tend to dwell too much on painful memories, it can help to try to keep my mind-wandering future focussed. I make plans and to-do lists in my mind. Even if I never follow through on most of it, it helps me organise my mental space. But you’re right, if a memory is too painful for you at the moment, the best thing you can do is to take your mind off it, and daydreaming can be an effective way of doing that. I don’t think that’s a bad thing if it’s what you need to do to cope.

  2. Interesting article 🙂 I have a few close friends who are very dear to me, and I chat to them regularly and sometimes unintentionally spam them with random puns and riddles that I know they’ll probably like. I think, while I daydream more that mind-wander, I still do it pretty often. When I’m doing something that requires focus like crossing the road to school I usually just start talking to myself internally about anything that comes to mind, such as complaining about how cars splash pedestrians with puddled rainwater and the fingerings of a piece of Band music and how I should really set aside time to polish my flute.
    And here’s a random thought that I had while reading – you mentioned that when you’re not concentrating on what you’re doing, your brain is automatically off in your daydream world. For some reason this reminded me of a character from Miss Peregrine’s, Olive, whose natural state is to be airborne. To stop from bobbing around like a balloon the entire time, she wears heavy lead shoes to keep her grounded. When she takes them off, she floats up again. I suppose this could work like an analogy for daydreamers? For many of us, daydreaming is our natural state but when we’re concentrating on something our minds are focused and in the present. And while it’s important for us to have time to daydream as well, it’s also important that we don’t completely drop out of reality and float away.

    1. I love that analogy! Needing something to keep us grounded and our heads out of the clouds. And, yes, it’s all about finding balance and letting our daydreams inspire us to improve our reality rather than disconnecting from it.

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