ON A SUNDAY morning in 1974, Arthur Fry sat in the front pews of a Presbyterian church in north St. Paul, Minn. An engineer at 3M, Fry was also a singer in the church choir. He had gotten into the habit of inserting little scraps of paper into his choir book, so that he could quickly find the right hymns during the service. The problem, however, was that the papers would often fall out, causing Fry to lose his place.
But then, while listening to the Sunday sermon, Fry started to daydream. Instead of focusing on the pastor's words, he began to mull over his bookmark problem. "It was during the sermon," Fry remembers, "that I first thought, 'What I really need is a little bookmark that will stick to the paper but will not tear the paper when I remove it.' " That errant thought - the byproduct of a wandering mind - would later become the yellow Post-it note, one of the most successful office products of all time.
Although there are many anecdotal stories of breakthroughs resulting from daydreams - Einstein, for instance, was notorious for his wandering mind - daydreaming itself is usually cast in a negative light. Children in school are encouraged to stop daydreaming and "focus," and wandering minds are often cited as a leading cause of traffic accidents. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don't really want to think. It's a sign of procrastination, not productivity, something to be put away with your flip-flops and hammock as summer draws to a close.
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."
The ability to think abstractly that flourishes during daydreams also has important social benefits. Mostly, what we daydream about is each other, as the mind retrieves memories, contemplates "what if" scenarios, and thinks about how it should behave in the future. In this sense, the content of daydreams often resembles a soap opera, with people reflecting on social interactions both real and make-believe. We can leave behind the world as it is and start imagining the world as it might be, if only we hadn't lost our temper, or had superpowers, or were sipping a daiquiri on a Caribbean beach. It is this ability to tune out the present moment and contemplate the make-believe that separates the human mind from every other.
"Daydreaming builds on this fundamental capacity people have for being able to project themselves into imaginary situations, like the future," Malia Mason, a neuroscientist at Columbia, says. "Without that skill, we'd be pretty limited creatures."
Teresa Belton, a research associate at East Anglia University in England, first got interested in daydreaming while reading a collection of stories written by children in elementary school. Although Belton encouraged the students to write about whatever they wanted, she was startled by just how uninspired most of the stories were.
"The tales tended to be very tedious and unimaginative," Belton says, "as if the children were stuck with this very restricted way of thinking. Even when they were encouraged to think creatively, they didn't really know how."
After monitoring the daily schedule of the children for several months, Belton came to the conclusion that their lack of imagination was, at least in part, caused by the absence of "empty time," or periods without any activity or sensory stimulation. She noticed that as soon as these children got even a little bit bored, they simply turned on the television: the moving images kept their minds occupied. "It was a very automatic reaction," she says. "Television was what they did when they didn't know what else to do."
The problem with this habit, Belton says, is that it kept the kids from daydreaming. Because the children were rarely bored - at least, when a television was nearby - they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. "The capacity to daydream enables a person to fill empty time with an enjoyable activity that can be carried on anywhere," Belton says. "But that's a skill that requires real practice. Too many kids never get the practice."
While much of the evidence linking daydreaming and creativity remains anecdotal, rooted in the testimony of people like Fry and Einstein, scientists are beginning to find experimental proof of the relationship. In a forthcoming paper, Schooler's lab has shown that people who engage in more daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity, which require people to make a set of unusual connections.
"Daydreams involve a more relaxed style of thinking, with people more willing to contemplate ideas that seem silly or far-fetched," says Belton. While such imaginative thoughts aren't always practical, they are often the wellspring of creative insights, as Schooler's research shows.
However, not all daydreams seem to inspire creativity. In his experiments, Schooler distinguishes between two types of daydreaming. The first type consists of people who notice they are daydreaming only when asked by the researcher. Even though they are told to press a button as soon as they realize their mind has started to wander, these people fail to press the button. The second type, in contrast, occurs when subjects catch themselves daydreaming during the experiment, without needing to be questioned. Schooler and colleagues found that individuals who are unaware of their own daydreaming while it's happening don't seem to exhibit increased creativity.
"The point is that it's not enough to just daydream," Schooler says. "Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight."
In other words, the reason Fry is such a good inventor - he has more than twenty patents to his name, in addition to Post-it notes - isn't simply because he's a prolific daydreamer. It's because he's able to pay attention to his daydreams, and to detect those moments when his daydreams lead to a useful idea.
Every time we slip effortlessly into a daydream, a distinct pattern of brain areas is activated, which is known as the default network. Studies show that this network is most engaged when people are performing tasks that require little conscious attention, such as routine driving on the highway or reading a tedious text. Although such mental trances are often seen as a sign of lethargy - we are staring haplessly into space - the cortex is actually very active during this default state, as numerous brain regions interact. Instead of responding to the outside world, the brain starts to contemplate its internal landscape. This is when new and creative connections are made between seemingly unrelated ideas.
"When you don't use a muscle, that muscle really isn't doing much of anything," says Dr. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist and radiologist at Washington University who was one of the first scientists to locate the default network in the brain. "But when your brain is supposedly doing nothing and daydreaming, it's really doing a tremendous amount. We call it the 'resting state,' but the brain isn't resting at all."
Recent research has confirmed the importance of the default network by studying what happens when the network is disrupted. For instance, there is suggestive evidence that people with autism engage in less daydreaming than normal, with a default network that exhibits significantly reduced activity during idle moments. In addition, more abnormal default networks in autistic subjects correlated with the most severe social deficits. One leading theory is that atypical default activity interferes with the sort of meandering memories and social simulations that typically characterize daydreams, causing people with autism to instead fixate on things in their environment.
The exact opposite phenomenon seems to occur in patients with schizophrenia, who exhibit overactive default networks. This might explain the inability of schizophrenics to differentiate properly between reality and the ideas generated by the imagination.
Problems with daydreaming also seem to afflict the aging brain: Harvard researchers recently discovered that one of the main symptoms of getting older is reduced coordination in the default network, as brain areas that normally operate in sync start to fire at different times. Scientists speculate that this deficit contributes to the inability of many elderly subjects to control the duration and timing of their daydreams.
"It's very important to use the default network at the right time," says Jessica Andrews-Hanna, a researcher at Harvard who has studied the network in older subjects. "When you need to focus" - such as during stop-and-go traffic, or when engaged in a conversation - "you don't want to let your mind wander off."
What these studies all demonstrate is that proper daydreaming - the kind of thinking that occurs when the mind is thinking to itself - is a crucial feature of the healthy human brain. It might seem as though our mind is empty, but the mind is never empty: it's always bubbling over with ideas and connections.
One of the simplest ways to foster creativity, then, may be to take daydreams more seriously. Even the mundane daydreams that occur hundreds of times a day are helping us plan for the future, interact with others, and solidify our own sense of self. And when we are stuck on a particularly difficult problem, a good daydream isn't just an escape - it may be the most productive thing we can do.
Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large at Seed magazine and the author of "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." He is a regular contributor to Ideas.