Allowing time for refleciton helps kids make meaning out of experiences and information they encounter.

Parents and teachers expend a lot of energy getting kids to pay attention, concentrate, and focus on the task in front of them. What adults don’t do, according to University of Southern California education professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, is teach children the value of the more diffuse mental activity that characterizes our inner lives: daydreaming, remembering, reflecting.

Yet this kind of introspection is crucial to our mental health, to our relationships, and to our emotional and moral development. And it promotes the skill parents and teachers care so much about: the capacity to focus on the world outside our heads.

Our brains have two operating systems, Immordino-Yang and her coauthors explain in an article [PDF] to be published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. The first, which they call the “looking out system,” orients our attention to the external environment, allowing us to get stuff done. The other, which they term the “looking in system,” directs us inward, setting our thoughts

free to wander. By scanning the brains of study subjects asked simply to rest and relax, scientists have discovered that our minds are anything but inactive in these moments. Relieved of the obligation to pay attention to what’s going on around us, we engage instead with a rich internal environment: recalling the past, imagining the future, replaying recent interactions and sorting out our feelings. It’s when we engage our brains’ “looking in” mode, notes Immordino-Yang, that we make meaning out of the mass of experiences and information we encounter when we’re “looking out.”

Young people may have fewer opportunities to exercise the vital capacity of introspection. Immordino-Yang fingers two culprits: educational practices that demand constant attentiveness, even from young children, and a hyper-connected world that insistently draws attention away from the world inside. “If youths overuse social media, if they spend very little waking time free from the possibility that a text will interrupt them,” the authors write, “we would expect that these conditions might predispose youths toward focusing on the concrete, physical and immediate aspects of situation and self, with less inclination toward considering the abstract, longer-term, moral and emotional implications of their and others’ actions.”

Ironically, a lack of time to daydream may even hamper kids’ capacity to pay attention when they need to. The ability to become absorbed in our own thoughts is linked to our ability to focus intently on the world outside, research indicates. In one recent neuro-imaging study, for example, participants alternated periods of mental rest with periods of looking at images and listening to sounds. The more effectively the neural regions associated with “looking in” were activated during rest and deactivated while attending to the visual and auditory stimuli, the more engaged were the brain’s sensory cortices in response to sights and sounds.

Focus and concentration are essential, of course. But so are introspection and reflection, and Immordino-Yang and her colleagues recommend that adults help children find a balance between the two modes: by regularly unplugging our kids’ blinking, buzzing devices, and by providing time and space for a quieter, more inward kind of entertainment.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The New Science of Smart. Visit her website and sign up for her monthly newsletter here.

Why Daydreaming Isn’t a Waste of Time 8 June,2012Annie Murphy Paul

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  • Kids in high school now are spending more time on their cellular devices (usually a smart phone with internet, games, music, etc) then ever before. Not even considering every other distraction available to a teenager, when you consier the amount of time any one particular young adult spends aimlessly navigating his or her phone or other “smart” device it makes it clear that they need to get in the habit of ensuring that time is being spent to simply sit back and “process”.

    (and oh, this applies to us regular adults as well)

  • charles stone

    Great post, Annie. I’m enrolled in a masters program on neuroleadership and our lesson was on this subject recently.

  • Jen

    What makes me sick is how many times I had to tell teachers there was nothing wrong with my day-dreamy, innocent daughter. Daydreaming is not a pathology.

    • jenEEPUH


      I used to daydream a lot when I was in school as a kid and felt guilty about it because it seemed like all the “smart” kids paid attention in class and stayed focus. I think what sucks is that these traditional, “adult” ways of thinking and viewing education is killing the potential and possibility in our kids. There needs to be a reformation in our minds or perception of children and who they are and what they are capable of.

  • Susan

    We need time to reflect.  Creativity is the cornerstone of how technology has advanced over the years.  Thinking out of the box was very successful for the most creative individuals who created companies that people thought would not succeed.  Engaging students to be creative should be a priority in the classroom.

  • Outofbox

    I call it an “occupation” of time.  Unless you get lost and then it’s a “vacation”!

    • Pilgrimbrooks

      Great verbage!!

  • Day dreaming, meditation, flash insights these are the tools of the trade for writers, prophets, artists and deep thinkers.  School is run by unimaginative control freaks who don’t have a creative bone in their bodies.  A growing mind needs room to roam and personal freedom.

    • jenEEPUH

      Hah!!!!!!!!. I love your comment, “School is run by unimaginative control freaks who don’t have a creative bone in their bodies.” Freaking true!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Pilgrimbrooks

      Great affirmation.  Thanks!!!

    • mind

      you must have had daydreamed to come up with this comment

    • Anonymously Appreciative

      I would have to say Amen to that, sister! Thank you for sharing this message with the world (or at least those willing to listen…)

    • jay kay

      so, if i am a teacher (one who on some level “runs school”) and i share this article with my students as part of a unit wherein we read the secret life of walter mitty, and then i give them a number of creative writing opportunities–including free writing–am i an unimaginative control freak? i call your hasty generalization, and raise you a rhetorical question, goatlady!

  • “Our brain has two operating systems”. The vast number of dual-system theories in psychology is amazing. If there really are two operating systems, they’ll need to connect them to the many other “two operating systems” in psychology…

  • Spicytofu

    And sometimes too much daydreaming can hinder one to focus and get on with their work.  Anyone with a creative mind or imagination will and can daydream freely.  It doesn’t take much work to do so.  But I do agree that school are good at producing students how to become excellent test takers instead of thinkers.    

  • Sjfone

    Now you tell me.

  • Multnomah Fats

    I always imagined this to be true.

  • Jen

    Because we don’t daydream enough, I think that’s why we get so many good ideas in the shower and while driving.  Sometimes it’s the only time we stop focusing, even for a short time.

    • Gemgirl

      The shower!…..yes! I have solved nearly every problem in the shower. Only place I can think uninterrupted and free-associate.

  • Hmitchell1229

    Just smoke a bowl and you could day dream for hours….a great introspective tool

  • Susan

    How does everyone encourage creativity in the classroom?

    • Cetodd1

      I believe it has to start with “play” in early childhood -something that is pretty much not allowed in schools today

  • Thank you for your clear and insightful article.Our world is too noisy, too busy, particularly for kids. Reflection time gives opportunities for creativity, resolving stressful situations, and space for plans and dreams. I always appreciate Mind/Shift, and have included this article in my blog ‘Thoughtful Tweets of the Day 11/12/13’

  • “by regularly unplugging our kids’ blinking, buzzing devices, and by providing time and space for a quieter, more inward kind of entertainment.” Is this editorializing, Annie? Was it in the original conclusions of the study? I wonder if daydreaming is just us paying attention to that which we want to attend to. I “daydream” and my thoughts lead me down endless paths of the information universe. Thoughts?

  • It is not only the electronics that don’t allow children (and other people), that daydreaming time; it is over-booked, activity filled schedules.

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  • Liz Massey

    One way for adults to get away with the daydreaming necessary for creative thought and reflection is to cover it up with exercise. My daily walks are mostly mental unplugging and daydreaming time. Very hard to to play with a device/screen at that time (although I suppose I could if I walked on a treadmill – ick) and beyond paying attention to one’s environment in order to perambulate safely, my mind is free to wander, and wonder.

  • Afranklin

    Teachers who engage their children allow time for daydreaming when called for but also negate daydreaming by having lessons that are creative, interactive and incorporate all types of learning styles. If only teachers had time to daydream…

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