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.
Confirming previous research, we found that most daydreaming involved mundane planning. But we also found that a surprisingly large portion of daydreams were quite meaningful to people. Those might revolve around important life decisions, relationships, or anything that feels personally important. The rarest type we found were fantastical daydreams—those about things like mythological creatures, spiritual or supernatural phenomena, or alternate universes.
Participants who often found their daydreams meaningful reported greater inspiration at the end of the day, and those who frequently reported fantastical daydreams reported more creative behavior.
To test how these various types of daydreams relate to creativity, we invited 133 volunteers from a population of university students to the lab and had them perform a variety of tasks, including a creative writing exercise in which they wrote a short story. We then asked participants about the typical contents of their daydreams using a questionnaire. Questionnaires pose a unique challenge for daydreaming research, as daydreams are by nature spontaneous and ephemeral. Having people rely on memory to report how often they have different types of daydreams would run the risk of missing a portion of their experiences.
To avoid this, we also employed a technique called experience sampling. Experience sampling entails pinging participants (in this case on their smartphones) at random moments throughout the day and asking: “Just now, were you daydreaming?” When participants were caught in a daydream, we asked follow-up questions to assess what type of daydream it was. This way, we were able to catch thoughts participants might not have become aware of without the interruption. We did this for a week to get an idea of what people’s typical daydreams are like in their normal life outside the lab. (The data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, so “normal life” still existed.) In the evenings, we pinged participants again and asked them how creative they had been that day and how inspired they felt.
While most daydreams were not correlated with creativity, two types were consistently associated with creativity in our student sample. In the lab, we found that participants who reported a greater tendency for meaningful or fantastical daydreams wrote more vivid and creative short stories. Outside of the lab, using experience sampling, we found similar results. Participants who often found their daydreams meaningful reported greater inspiration at the end of the day, and those who frequently reported fantastical daydreams reported more creative behavior.
Daydreaming may not be the quick creativity hack we wish for, but our research suggests that we should reevaluate how we think about daydreaming, and in particular, what we daydream about.
These associations between daydreaming and creativity were explained by differences between individuals. In other words, those who frequently tend to engage in more meaningful or fantastical daydreams relative to others were more inspired and more creative. Having an uptick in those types of mind wandering on one day compared to other days conferred no additional benefit. That means these types of daydreams don’t necessarily directly spark creative inspiration, but people who routinely engage in these types of daydreams tend to be more inspired and creative. This raises a question my colleagues and I are hoping to explore further: Can we increase the number of meaningful or fantastical daydreams for people who don’t typically experience them, and would this increase their creativity? We are also hoping to explore these questions in a larger and more diverse population to see if they generalize beyond our student sample.
Daydreaming may not be the quick creativity hack we wish for, but our research suggests that we should reevaluate how we think about daydreaming, and in particular, what we daydream about. Now that a global pandemic has made our lives more restricted and repetitive, mentally simulating fantastical alternative worlds can be an interesting temporary escape from reality and might be a way to find new inspiration. Instead of chastising yourself the next time you notice your mind has wandered off task, consider daydreaming a little more instead—and adding in something fantastical. It might be the break that leads to your best idea yet.