A Healthy Mind Requires Mindfulness and Daydreams

You don’t need to look far to find support for Mindfulness.

Whether you’ve tried it or not, the benefits are unmistakable. With a plethora of both endorsements and scientific studies to back it up, mindfulness meditation is fast becoming the recommended exercise for our brains.

Mindfulness is an act of being in the moment, focused on the present time, and taking notice of when your mind wanders to bring it back. And it’s already being incorporated into the likes of Google, Target, and General Mills.

Mindfulness is Great

There’s science behind it.

It’ll make you happier, you’ll find it easier to focus, and you’ll become more appreciative of the present moment.

These benefits are more important now, in an age where most of us are totally wired to the internet in some form or another. A lesson in breaking away from this virtual reality every once and a while, in order to better appreciate the present, is a welcome one.

Being more aware of your mind’s switch between wandering and focusing is also a powerful tool, allowing a more controlled and steady form of attention.

Meditation is good, there we go.

There is however another common reason people are practicing mindfulness: The perception that Mind wandering is bad, some sort of cognitive mistake that we’d be better off without.

Something Went Wrong

Some say daydreaming is distracting, and gets in the way of what’s important. An article in Forbes recently wrote “the real practice is bringing the mind back to a particular point of focus, as many times as it takes. And it may take a lot of redirection, since, says Kabat-Zinn, the mind’s nature is to wander.”

If it’s the mind’s nature to wander, why did it develop this way? Surely, evolutionarily speaking, if something has come to occupy 30-50% of our time, it must have it’s benefits.

The negatives associated with daydreaming are obvious: We get distracted at inconvenient times, it’s a waste of time that could be spent doing more productive things, and it leaves us unhappy.

Not only are these bad, they’re also obvious, and can be seen in others. We can tell when someone is distracted by their wandering minds, just as easily as we can notice our own.

But as daydreaming is a purely internal stream of thought, where your focus on the outside all but disappears, it should not be a surprise that the benefits to it are internal, and not something you’ll see in others.

Scott Barry Kaufman has found some good news: A wandering mind is more creative, better at future planning and goal driven thought, and helps with memory consolidation.

Kaufman is helping to disprove the notion that mind-wandering is not good, it is in fact quite the opposite.

The Secret to Daydreaming

Kaufman exposes three forms of daydreaming in his paper Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming.

Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming — driven by a combination of ambitiousness, anguishing fantasies of heroism, failure, and aggression.

Poor attentional control — typical of the anxious, the distractible, and those having difficulties concentrating, characterized by the inability to concentrate on either the ongoing thought or the external task.

Finally, Positive Constructive Daydreaming-associated with playful, vivid, wishful thoughts, and is free from psychological conflict.

Clearly, positive constructive daydreaming is the one we’re after.

Daydreaming is volitional. Just as in mindfulness, the trick to mind-wandering is to be aware of what’s happening, so that when your mind wanders to a negative frame, we can bring it back to the positive.

When we focus on the world around us, and also when we practice mindful meditation, we employ the Task Positive Network within the brain. When we daydream or relax our minds, we activate the Default Mode Network.

The default mode is switched on when we get distracted by our inner thoughts, and it can be difficult to notice it happening until it’s too late.

But becoming more aware of this change in modes is what mindfulness trains us for.

While the idea behind mindful meditation is to strengthen our ability to focus—to block off the default mode—there’s no reason it can’t work both ways.

By practicing the technique and gaining more control and awareness over which mode we’re in, it becomes possible to use both modes more effectively when the occasion calls for it.

Paying attention to tasks is greatly improved by meditation. But also, the two negative forms of daydreaming can be greatly reduced. Distractions cease at the same rate that our focus improves; but gaining awareness over the modes means that daydreaming can become a purposeful act, and can be directed to the positive, goal-driven thought that makes it such an important facet of life.

A healthy dose of mindful meditation can compliment a wandering mind, but balance is important. Both modes have their purpose, and sacrificing one for the other will lead to problems—whether those problems are obvious or not. As Kaufman points out…

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.

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