It’s OK to daydream!

And the good news is … (drum roll) … It’s OK to daydream!

Yes, daydreaming can actually help you concentrate and pay attention when you need to. An interesting article in the Journal Perspectives on Psychological Science discusses the brain’s two ‘operating systems’. The ‘looking out system’ directs your attention to the external environment so that you get things done. The other ‘looking in system’ takes your attention inward, where your thoughts can wander. You might recall the past, sort out your feelings, or make sense of what you’ve experienced when ‘looking out’. This ‘looking in system’ is the brain’s default mode.

It’s your ‘looking in system’ that produces those lovely ‘Eureka!’ moments, those sudden flashes of insight and the answers to sticky problems. They generally come when you’re restfully awake, like in the shower, driving the car, chopping vegetables or doing some other unrelated, routine task.

The ‘looking in system’ is also important for your mental health, relationships and emotional development. And it strengthens your ‘looking out system’ which you need for reading, critical thinking and creative thinking, for instance. It may even help prevent environmental distractions from disrupting your concentration when you’re in the ‘looking out system’.

But here’s the rub. Once upon a time, we had plenty of time to relax into our ‘looking in system’; but the modern world is filled with pressures to be outwardly focused, both at work and in school. School and work both demand our constant attention and drag us out of the ‘looking in system’.

And too much outward focus is actually counterproductive because the more we’re in our ‘looking out system’, the less we’re in our ‘looking in system’, which then doesn’t have a chance to beef up or ‘looking out system’. Are you following this? That’s why it’s so common for our minds to wander when we’re trying to work or study.

It’s even worse for social media addicts. Facebook, Twitter and so on may bias people to focus on the concrete, physical and immediate aspects of social situations and on themselves, which are more compatible with the ‘looking out system’. Too much Facebooking, Tweeting, Messaging, etc., further weakens your ‘looking in system’ and reduces your socio-emotional skills.

As a result, social media addicts (and others who for other reasons don’t spend much time in their ‘looking in system’) become less inclined towards pondering the abstract, longer-term moral and emotional implications of their own and others’ actions and ironically, lose their ability to concentrate on the outside world when they need to.

That’s why we keep hearing what a good idea it is to unplug our electronic stuff for an hour or two a day and definitely not take it to bed with us when we’ll be tempted to check it when we wake up instead of doing something more useful, like jumping out of bed to meet the new day or even spending a few minutes just relaxing and letting our minds wander.

The bottom line is that it’s important to balance the two systems, one for paying attention to the world and getting things done and the other for introspection and reflection. While spending time in your ‘looking out system’ suppresses your ‘looking in system’, spending time in your ‘looking in system’ actually strengthens your ‘looking out system’. And that’s why it’s OK to daydream.

Discussion questions

Do you spend enough time daydreaming?!