Daydreaming Key to Creativity


When I want to solve a problem or come up with a creative idea, I usually sit down and think about it. This could be the wrong strategy, according to University of British Columbia psychology professor Kalina Christoff. The UBC prof is an expert in the unlikely subject of daydreaming, and has released findings that our brains are MORE activated than normal when we let them wander:

According to Christoff, there are two major networks in the brain: the executive network, involved in problem-solving, reasoning, and “goal-directed deliberate thinking” and the default network, which becomes activated when you’re not doing anything in particular. While only one of the two networks is generally activated at any given time, the study found that when subjects daydreamed or mind-wandered, both networks were activated at the same time.

“One of the things that I hope might come out of our study is that people realize that their brains are definitely not getting shut down when they mind-wander,” she said. “They’re very active….You have this unique brain state where instead of having one or the other shut down, both networks are available to be used. It’s a mental state that’s really not lazy, from the point of view of the brain.”

That may be why it seems as if many people’s best ideas come from inadvertent straying of the mind. [From The Ubyssey – Daydreams professor hopes study leads to new ways of thinking about thinking by Cynthia Khoo.]

Christoff thinks daydreaming works by bringing together ideas in ways our rational brain wouldn’t attempt. “After all that mind-wandering, eventually you start seeing connections that you wouldn’t have seen before, because you would never have logically allowed your mind to make those connections. Now it’s going to make them for you,” she notes.

Neuro-writer Jonah Leherer wrote about Christoff’s work in Daydreams, and also wrote about daydreaming last year:

In recent years, however, scientists have begun to see the act of daydreaming very differently. They’ve demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind – so fundamental, in fact, that it’s often referred to as our “default” mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings – such as the message of a church sermon – the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we’re able to imagine things that don’t actually exist, like sticky yellow bookmarks.

“If your mind didn’t wander, then you’d be largely shackled to whatever you are doing right now,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But instead you can engage in mental time travel and other kinds of simulation. During a daydream, your thoughts are really unbounded.” [From the Boston Globe – Daydream Achiever by Jonah Lehrer.]

Al Fin extends the concept of productive daydreaming by describing a more specific methodology in Focus and Drift: A Secret Path to Brain Power?.

Here’s the neuromarketing takeaway from this Christoff’s work: if you are trying to solve a difficult problem, or come up with a new marketing strategy, don’t spend all of your time aggressively focusing on the problem. Let your mind wander – you might be surprised at what you come up with!

(Don’t forget to print out a copy of this post in case your boss asks why you are spending so much time staring into space. You may look like you are merely daydreaming, but science shows you are actually engaged in highly creative problem-solving activity!)

  1. Paul Johnson says

    I would suggest that most leaders don’t even allow their team to think, much less daydream. When I suggest folks try leaning back in their office chair with their feet on the desk, and close their eyes to just THINK, they laugh. They know that anyone walking by could only imagine they’re goofing off, not WORKING on a problem.

  2. Aaron Shields says

    When Nancy Andreasen did her research on creative thought (see The Creative Brain) she found that during periods of letting the mind wander, the association cortices fired. This would make sense in the context of this article about why daydreaming leads to new associations.

  3. Justin Breitfelder says

    My hope is that as this type of research gets picked up by the mainstream business press it will slowly become the norm. What was once derided as the kooky behavior of creative types in marketing/advertising and the arts will become common practice more broadly in organizations looking for every edge they can get to survive in ultra-competitive markets.

  4. Roger Dooley says

    I hope you are right, Justin, but as Paul points out the idea of letting people sit around and think is tough for most managers to accept.

    Still, some companies have tried to build creativity into their architecture by creating quiet spaces as well as spaces to foster random interaction between people, so anything is possible.


  5. Amy Fries says

    I love this topic…so much so that my book on this very subject was just published. I include all the latest research as well as stories and interviews with people who have successfully tapped into their daydreams for ideas, creative problem solving, etc. I also talk about why daydreaming is our most creative state of mind and how to work it to your advantage. Mainly, I’m on a mission to bring daydreaming out of the closet. It’s still a mystery to me why people disparage this brilliant and visionary state of mind. You can read more about it at

  6. Amy Fries says

    I also have three chapters specifically about how businesses can become more creative with examples using Google, 3M, Gore & Associates and others.
    It is a challenge for companies to accept the “looseness” of creativity, but all the HR experts and execs I interviewed agree that companies are going to have to become more innovative to keep pace with rapid technological changes and increased competitionn from globalization.
    I apologize for the plug, but you might be interested in reading more at:

  7. Chris Chong says

    Not having a billion emails every second and tasks that are totally mindless is the key to being creative.

  8. Fabio says

    Dr. Katherine Benziger P.h.D new it from 30 years.Cheers. Fabio

  9. Deborah Hymes says

    When I worked for a major media corporation, I would occasionally sit in my office and spend some time just *thinking* about some issue we were trying to resolve.

    I used to get so much flack for that! “Why aren’t you working?” “Daydreaming again?” Whenever I replied that I was thinking, people scoffed.

    There’s an understandable impulse to leap into action, to jump straight to execution. It takes discipline to take a step back, to visualize your options, to imagine a better way. 😉

  10. Jorge Barba says

    When I was a young boy my parents sent me to the Silva Mind Control Method course (best investment ever!), and one of the things I was taught was the importance off letting your mind rest. According to our instructor, our brain is most active when we’re sleeping, it’s usually when it makes the most connections.

    There is a technique that we were taught for getting our brains into a state similar to sleep that you can use to daydream, called the 3 to 1 technique.

    Your first start by getting comfortable and closing your eyes, take a deep breath and when exhaling in your mind repeat the number 3 three times and relax your body.

    Do the same for numbers 2 and 1 and this will put your mind in beta which is when we’re sleeping.

    I’ve found that this technique is also great for power naps.

    Hopefully you’ll find this helpful.

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