This Kind of Daydreaming Is Connected to Better Brain Health, No Matter Your Age

Photo: Stocksy/ Jovo Jovanovic/ W+G Creative
Daydreaming doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. We’re told it keeps us from focusing and takes us out of the present. Yet research has shown that most of us spend nearly 47 percent of our waking hours letting our minds wander. (You’re not the only one who took a mental vacation to Aruba today.)

The good news: Researchers are finding that a specific type of daydreaming may actually be linked to better brain function, help with problem-solving, and possibly even have an effect on cognitive decline. It’s called positive constructive daydreaming and it’s a little specific. Here’s what you should know.

Experts In This Article

What is positive constructive daydreaming?

The term was coined by the late psychologist Jerome Singer, who was dubbed the “father of daydreaming.” From his research, Singer broke daydreaming into three categories:

  • Positive constructive daydreaming, which features playful, wishful images and planning
  • Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, which is characterized by obsessive and anguished fantasies
  • Poor attentional control, which is trouble focusing on an ongoing thought or a task you’re supposed to be doing (i.e. the kind of daydreaming that typically gets a bad rap)

“Positive constructive daydreaming is associated with a broad array of positive constructs, including creativity, planning, problem-solving, memory consolidation, and self-reflection,” says Stella Panos, PhD, a neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California. “This is different than other types of mind-wandering that do not seem to have a beneficial impact.”

Rather than rehashing old worries, positive constructive daydreaming involves letting your imagination look ahead playfully. Maybe it's thinking about what you'd do if you won the lottery, or what your kids might be like when they grow up.

What’s the link between daydreaming and cognitive decline?

Research into this is still ongoing, and it hasn’t all been hammered out yet. However, there are a few things that may explain the relationship between daydreaming and reduced cognitive decline.

“Daydreaming is similar in many ways to meditating,” says W. Christopher Winter. MD, a neurologist and sleep medicine physician with Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and host of the Sleep Unplugged podcast. “While meditating usually involves trying to clear the mind, or focus it, it would seem to me that daydreaming would be a similar endeavor—letting your mind wander, thinking about pleasurable situations or activities.”

This could potentially reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, and cause a release of endorphins that could improve your health and brain over time, Dr. Winter says.

Research has also found that positive constructive daydreaming is linked to a thicker cerebral cortex—your brain’s gray matter. On the flipside, thinning gray matter has been linked with the cognitive decline that comes with aging. So, there may be something about positive constructive daydreaming that has a direct impact on your brain, but scientists are still looking into it.

“A specific network in the brain—the default mode network—is active during daydreaming,” Dr. Panos says. “This network is comprised of smaller systems that include the medial temporal system (necessary for spatial and episodic memory) and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (associated with a variety of functions, including emotional regulation, problem-solving, decision-making, theory of mind, and abstract reasoning).”

Neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia are linked with decreased activation in those brain areas, as well as decreased cognitive performance on more basic tasks linked with functional ability in those areas, Dr. Panos says. “More recent research has begun exploring higher level constructs like positive constructive daydreaming, and found that individuals with neurodegenerative conditions also had lower positive constructive daydreaming episodes.”

But Dr. Panos says that doesn’t necessarily mean that daydreaming can help with better cognitive health. What is known, though, is that in order to daydream, you need to be able to make and retain memories, retrieve that information, and project that information into the future. Basically, you need to have good brain health in order to do positive constructive daydreaming.

Dr. Panos says there isn’t enough research right now to say for sure that daydreaming will help slow cognitive decline over time. But she says that there is already “compelling evidence” to suggest that it can help with problem-solving. “Taking a break from focused attention on something can enhance learning,” she says.

If you want to try to daydream in a positive way, Dr. Winter suggests letting your mind wander toward future plans—an upcoming vacation or what your dream home would look like, for example—when you’re laying in bed at night. If nothing else, it can help you relax and unwind for sleep.

—reviewed by Smita Holden, MD

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