Dr. Caroline Leaf – Although it may seem contradictory, letting your mind daydream is actually really good for your mental health! In this podcast (episode #266) and blog, I talk about the many mental and physical health benefits of just letting your mind wander.
The mind is always active (even when you are sleeping!), which means that even when you are not thinking about anything in particular, you are still thinking—the mind is still going about its business. Indeed, our minds are always time-travelling from the past to the present and back to the future.
The great news is that you can be intentional about turning these “time-travel daydreaming moments” into what I call “thinker moments” – periods of time when you let your mind switch off to the external, switch onto the internal and just wander and daydream.
Why do I call these “thinker” moments? This term is based on Auguste Rodin’s famous “The Thinker” sculpture—that incredibly heroic-looking figure with his hand pensively under his chin. When I first saw this statue, it felt almost imposing, and I thought to myself, “How could that act of just sitting there and thinking be so…formidable?”.
The reality is that daydreaming, doodling and letting our minds wander is incredibly powerful. It is not what I have heard some people call “nonsense” or “distracted” thinking. When we daydream, we essentially reboot our mind, as I discuss in detail in my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.
This means you can use thinker moments to give your brain a rest and allow it to heal and reenergize, which increases your clarity of thought and organizes the networks of your brain. It does this by increasing and balancing alpha activity, which increases insight into what’s really going on in your mind and helps create an optimal state of relaxation and alertness, bridging the divide between the conscious and nonconscious mind. This puts you in a state of peacefulness, readiness and meditation, and increases delta activity, which helps to bring up suppressed thoughts.
Thinker moments also increase beta activity, which is important for processing information, being alert and attentive, working through something challenging, focusing, and developing sustained attention. As a result, this balanced energy increases blood flow to the brain, which helps it function better and helps you deal with mental challenges and manage stress.
The opposite happens if you don’t take regular thinker moments. Not giving the mind a rest and letting it daydream can reduce blood flow by up to 80 percent in the front of the brain, which can dramatically affect cognitive fluency and the efficient, associative thinking required at home, school or in the workplace. Cumulatively, this can lead to unprocessed thoughts and nightmares, affecting your overall quality of sleep, performance and mental health. The reality is that you cannot afford not to daydream!
Now, you may be thinking, “All this sounds great, but how do I get my mind to just shut off and daydream? Where do I start?” Here’s how:
- To do a thinker moment, think of yourself as the actor, director, screenwriter and audience of a mental performance – your mental performance.
- Now, simply close your eyes and let your mind wander.
- You can start the process by intentionally thinking of something pleasant and meaningful, and then let this lead you into a flow of thoughts. Prompt yourself with topics you’d find rewarding to daydream about, like a pleasant memory, a future accomplishment, or an event you’re looking forward to.
- Be observant about what you are thinking about. Indeed, as you take a thinker moment, you may be surprised to notice what thoughts and feelings pop up from your nonconscious during these moments. Don’t panic, as this is perfectly normal! Just take note of them and plan to address them later—try to avoid ruminating on them and letting them interrupt your internal rest time.
- As you daydream, you can listen to some music, take a walk outside, or doodle. These moments can be anything from a short ten seconds to a full hour.
- Trust that it’s possible to have a good experience if you prime your brain with topics you find pleasant. This is something all of us can do once you have the concept; even a child can do this with instructions! Daydreaming makes sense to us, no matter our age.
- Lastly, try not to confuse planning things with thinking for pleasure!
When I want to have a “thinker moment”, I personally like to just stop and stare out a window for a few seconds. I find this very helpful and invigorating—especially when I am really stressed or anxious, or in the middle of a busy work day. If possible, I also try to go outside; being in nature and getting that Vitamin D really takes that thinker moment to the next level!
I really cannot recommend “thinker moments” enough—not just for your mental and physical health, but also your spiritual wellbeing! When you give our mind a rest by letting your mind wander and daydream, you essentially restart your brain and give yourself that edge you need, helping you get in touch with that deeper, nonconscious, almost spiritual part of you. These moments don’t just help improve mental health, they also help you get to know yourself on a deeper level.