In the past hour, you’ve probably had at least a few spontaneous daydreams that had nothing to do with what you were doing. Maybe while drafting an email for work, your mind replayed a conversation you had earlier. Or during a less-than-riveting Zoom meeting, you might have found yourself lost in a random melody running through your head, or thinking about a family member you’ve been putting off calling. Your daydreaming could have taken a fantastical turn: How would your life be different if you had the ability to peek a day or two into the future?
Daydreaming, also known as mind wandering, is exactly that: our thoughts drifting away from our present experience. It is an extremely common experience—we do it every couple of minutes, adding up to 25-50 percent of our waking hours, and we often don’t even notice when it happens. One moment we are at work, the next we are imagining what it would be like to be transported 100 years into the future.
Although daydreaming is sometimes portrayed as a black hole where productivity goes to die (it can be hard to get stuff done when you’re lost in your imagination), there’s a compelling argument to be made that the opposite could also be true. Rather than being a time sink, daydreaming might be a source of creative inspiration. The idea seems intuitive, and research among professional creatives has found that good ideas do sometimes emerge from daydreams. But the research isn’t conclusive. Some studies have found a link between frequent daydreaming and creativity, others have not.
Rather than being a time sink, daydreaming might be a source of creative inspiration.
This made me wonder whether our romantic notion of daydreaming as a source of creativity is overly simplistic. Most daydreams are incredibly mundane, like “What should I make for dinner?” or “Is it time to bring the car in for an oil change?” Perhaps we have been asking the wrong question. Maybe what matters for creativity is not how much we daydream, but what we daydream about. I explored this question in a recent study together with fellow researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara. According to our results, most types of daydreams are not indicative of creativity. But two types of daydreams—those that are personally meaningful and those with fantastical content—are associated with creativity.
To find out what types of daydreams are linked with creativity, we first had to establish what types of daydreams people routinely experience. We started by conducting pilot studies in which we asked online participants to recall their most recent daydream. We identified six underlying dimensions that capture distinct qualities of daydreams: how pleasant (or unpleasant) a daydream is, how much it revolves around mundane planning, how much it involves sexual thoughts, whether it is deliberate or unconscious, how personally meaningful it is, and how fantastical it is. Any one daydream can have multiple of these dimensions.