Daydreaming gets a pretty bad rap. It's often equated with laziness, and we tend to write off people with wandering minds as being absent-minded "space cadets" who can't get their heads out of the clouds.
Though we all spend close to 50 percent of our waking lives in a state of mind-wandering, according to one estimate, some research casts daydreaming in a negative light. A 2010 Harvard study linked spacing out with unhappiness, concluding that "a wandering mind is an unhappy mind." But could these unconscious thinking processes actually play a pivotal role in the achievement of personal goals?
In a radical new theory of human intelligence, one cognitive psychologist argues that having your head in the clouds might actually help people to better engage with the pursuits that are most personally meaningful to them. According to Scott Barry Kaufman, NYU psychology professor and author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, we need a new definition of intelligence -- one that factors in our deepest dreams and desires.
"We all have goals and dreams in life -- things we want to accomplish out there in the real world," Kaufman tells The Huffington Post. "And while the kinds of skills that are measured on IQ tests are important ... there are so many more characteristics that come into play in helping us to reach those dreams and goals in a long-term way."
Our traditional standard of intelligence is lacking, Kaufman explains, and it can leave behind many people who don't perform well on rote cognitive skill tests, but who may be highly adept when it comes to spontaneous cognition.
"We tend to think of smart people as those who learn really quickly and do well on IQ tests," Kaufman says. "I felt like so many people were being judged as stupid too quickly entirely based on these scores ... I wanted to look at what happened when we get these students really engaged in something that's personally meaningful to them."
Kaufmans's Theory of Personal Intelligence, as outlined in Ungifted, explains intellect in broader terms, focusing on cognitive engagement and ability as applied to the pursuit of personal goals. The theory takes into account not only traditional markers of intelligence such as working memory and attention (controlled forms of cognition), but also spontaneous forms of cognition, including insight, intuition and the triggering of memories and stored information -- types of intelligence often accessed through mind-wandering.
By Kaufman's theory, daydreaming can play an important role in personal adaptation. He wrote in a recent Scientific American blog (based on a paper he co-authored with Rebecca L. McMillan, "Ode To Positive Constructive Daydreaming") that mind-wandering can offer significant personal rewards:
These rewards include self- awareness, creative incubation, improvisation and evaluation, memory consolidation, autobiographical planning, goal driven thought, future planning, retrieval of deeply personal memories, reflective consideration of the meaning of events and experiences, simulating the perspective of another person, evaluating the implications of self and others’ emotional reactions, moral reasoning, and reflective compassion... From this personal perspective, it is much easier to understand why people are drawn to mind wandering and willing to invest nearly 50 percent of their waking hours engaged in it.
Previous research reinforces the idea that a wandering mind often wanders somewhere worth going: A 2012 study suggested that although daydreaming may seem passive, it could actually involve a highly engaged brain state. Daydreaming often leads to sudden connections and profound insights because it correlates with our ability to recall information in the face of distractions. And in 2011, neuroscientists found that daydreaming involves the same brain processes associated with imagination and creativity.
Daydreaming is a way to "dip into [your] inner stream of consciousness," and personally reflect on the world and visualize the future, Kaufman says. This sort of impromptu introspection can even help us to find the answers to life's big questions. As Kaufman and McMillan put it, "Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school."
"When we see someone daydreaming, we have no idea what's going on in their head," he says. "These functions that all come from within -- like imagination and mind-wandering -- have been shown to be really important contributors to creativity."
Research has even shown that on standardized tests, when students are allowed to mind-wander and make personal connections to their own lives, they perform better on the exams and do better in school, Kaufman says.
But how can the benefits of mind-wandering, which involves disengaging from our surroundings, be reconciled with the mental health and cognitive benefits of mindfulness, which focuses on cultivating a conscious awareness on the present moment? Mindfulness practices have recently been touted as something of a cognitive cure-all, and they've been linked to improved cognitive function, reduced stress levels and even boosts in compassion. But Kaufman explains that we should allow ourselves to balance the focused mind with the wandering mind.
"It's smart to question whether we should always be living in the moment," says Kaufman. "The latest research on imagination and creativity shows that if we're always in the moment, we're going to miss out on important connections between our own inner mind-wandering thoughts and the outside world. Creativity lies in that intersection between our outer world and our inner world."