black and white photo of woman daydreaming at typewriter

Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

It seems like every day there's another study pointing to how this or that modern technology is destroying our ability to focus. But what if the problem is that we are expected to focus too much? By not giving our brains enough down time, maybe we are actually exacerbating the problems we have with focus.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have felt guilty about daydreaming. (I like to do it while I fall asleep at night, in the shower, while I'm cleaning the house and when I'm on the train or driving; is it a surprise that this is when I come up with my best creative ideas too? I don't think so.) I related to the character Bastian from the movie "The Neverending Story," when his father demanded, "Get your head down out of the clouds, and keep both feet on the ground!" It is a memorable line that's repeated throughout the film, as Bastian struggles with the fantastical nature of the story he is involved in. And while I was never directly discouraged from dreaming as a kid, as I've gotten older, the notes I've gotten from our culture certainly have told me I was wasting my time whenever my head was in the clouds.

And yet, it never felt right to shut down that daydreaming. For one, it was too fun. How amazing is it that as humans, we get to go anywhere, do anything, be a different version of ourselves — all safely in the confines of our noggins? But don't just take my word for it: In the July, 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, (journal of the Association for Psychological Science), psychological scientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues gathered a number of studies and plumbed them for details about the brain at rest, with some of the results summarized in ScienceDaily. "Findings ... suggest that individual differences in brain activity during rest are correlated with components of socioemotional functioning, such as self-awareness and moral judgment, as well as different aspects of learning and memory." So just like sleeping allows our brains to reorganize and ultimately work more efficiently, daydreaming may assist our mental health, day-to-day.

And brain "time-outs" may also help kids learn better (possibly proving wrong those adults who admonish kids for daydreaming). "We focus on the outside world in education and don't look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts," says Immordino-Yang. For kids who have been taught some version of mindful introspection, the studies that Immordino-Yang looked at indicated that they are less likely to suffer from high levels of anxiety, perform better on tests, and do a better job of planning for the future.

"Balance is needed between outward and inward attention, since time spent mind wandering, reflecting and imagining may also improve the quality of outward attention that kids can sustain," says Immordino-Yang. And kids aren't the only ones who benefit; everyone can benefit from some mental downtime (no, watching TV doesn't count — think staring out a train window or lying on your back watching the clouds go by). Of course, in today's connected world, it can be difficult to put down the smartphone for that long, but like many things that are good for you, it's all about practice.

The downside of constant focus seems to be significant: a disconnected and anxious view of the world and one's place in it. Few wish this for themselves, and certainly not for their kids, yet our current culture demands this from children.

"Consistently imposing overly high-attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about 'what happened' or 'how to do this' to constructing knowledge about 'what this means for the world and for the way I live my life,' " Immordino-Yang writes.

Next time you see a kid (or adult!) staring off into space, remember that they might actually getting important work done.

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Who said daydreaming was bad? They're wrong
Giving your brain unstructured downtime can be important for mental health.