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Is It Good or Bad to Zone Out, Space Out, or Daydream?

Whether you call it zoning out, spacing out, or daydreaming, we spend up to 47% of our waking lives letting our minds wander. This week, the Savvy Psychologist explains why mind wandering happens, when it’s good, when it’s bad--and how it might even lead to your own "Eureka!" moment.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #36

Then they tried the creativity tasks again. And you guessed it: the mind wandering group did better—41% better—than the other groups on the repeated tasks.  Call it marinating, call it incubation—whatever was happening while the mind wandered, it worked.

And to make things weirder, it turns out that zoning out—again, mind wandering that you’re not even aware of—works best to facilitate creative insight. 

As a result, it’s been argued that mind wandering, fundamentally, does work towards a goal, even if it’s not directly applicable to the task at hand. Indeed, similar to the dreaming that occurs when we’re asleep, our daydreaming mind cycles through parts of the brain that are out of reach of conscious intention.

Conclusion

So, is mind wandering good or bad?  Basically, it depends on two things.

First, context: mind wandering while you’re doing something mundane, like sitting in the bathtub, could lead to a creative breakthrough, as Archimedes found out firsthand. Mind wandering while you’re taking the SATs or being interviewed for your dream job? Not so good.

Next, content: our ability to visualize and plan for the future is part of what makes us humans unique. In general, non-anxious mind wandering about the future, or rerunning good moments from your past--like replaying a nice compliment or absentmindedly visualizing your dream house--are constructive. Ruminating on the past, or anxious mental hand-wringing about the future, however, is mind wandering at its worst.

And while it's one thing to zone out when watching TV, what if you catch yourself zoning out in conversation? Apologize and be honest: “I’m so sorry—I want to focus properly on you and I’m having a hard time. Nothing to do with you. Can you repeat that last sentence?” Or you could quote William James, founder of modern American psychology, who countered the claim that he was absent-minded by responding that he was just "present-minded" to his own thoughts.

But don’t take it from me, or even William James. Take it from Gandalf, who, with help from JRR Tolkien, famously said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” 

Get more savvy by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get the episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter.  Plus, follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

References

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/29/science/29tier.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Killingsworth, M.A. & Gilbert, D.T. (2010).  A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.  Science, 330, 932.

Delaney, P.F., Sahakyan, L., Kelley, C.M., & Zimmerman, C.A.  (2010).  Remembering to forget: The amnesic effect of daydreaming.  Psychological Science, 21, 1036-42.

Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M.D., Kam, J.W.Y., Franklin, M.S., & Schooler, J.W. (2012).  Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation.  Psychological Science, 23, 1117-1122.

Photos of girl in park, woman daydreaming at desk, and businessman zoning out courtesy of Shutterstock..

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Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.