The case for daydreaming

The case for daydreaming

It’s time to put down your phone and let your mind wander.

Dr. Kalina Christoff
Photography by Kyrani Kanavaros
Illustrations by Katie Lukes

It’s getting easier and easier to hate the phone – and according to UBC psychology professor Dr. Kalina Christoff, that animosity might be well placed.

The phone in question should not be understood as a telephone; hardly anybody still uses those things to actually speak – out loud – to another person. No, a phone in today’s context is the computer in your pocket, your crutch and addiction, the thing that steals your attention and monopolizes your time – but spares you from ever looking lonely or unproductive. According to Christoff’s theory, these instruments that entertain and inform – that sometimes hold us trancelike – might also be obstructing the part of our brain that we rely upon for self-reflection and creativity. In a cumulative and worrying way, our smartphones might be making us stupid.

This is no mere speculation. Christoff’s opinion is informed by much more than the gut-level concern felt by every parent who has watched their adolescent children disappear into violent videogaming or Insta-gratification. Christoff has stared, at least metaphorically, into the brains of thousands of test subjects, looking especially at what’s happening when they are not hyperfocused – and what she has seen is remarkably positive. On the increasingly rare occasion when we let our minds wander, the blood in our brains rushes to what is called the default network. Christoff’s assistant, UBC master’s student Andre Zamani, describes this network as a vital support centre for spontaneous thought – a creative space that helps us sort through our thoughts and experiences.

Christoff says, “Our experiences form our lives – past, present, and future – and left to wander, our mind will process them into stories and meaning.” But a cultural emphasis on goal-driven thinking, which happens in another part of the brain, “disconnects us from the fullness of our experience.” The long-term effect of this disconnection is unclear, but Christoff points out that if we disrupt animals when they are dreaming (another function that occurs in the default network), they fail to learn. That hardly feels promising at this point in human history.

Christoff has what could be characterized as an anti-authoritarian view of human cognition. An early fan of the political philosopher Friedrich August Hayek, whose fundamental thesis is that people should be free from coercion, Christoff has always resisted attempts to force the functioning of her brain into any kind of a box. This concern emerged early. Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she grew up in an era of “Soviet socialist doctrine-based control.” Bulgaria, she says, was a place where the government was there “to tell people how to begin their autobiography.” They told a clearly talented seven-year-old Christoff that she was going to be a concert pianist. They placed her in an exclusive music school and said – great news! – she wouldn’t have to study history or math; she could just play the piano all the time.

Christoff didn’t last. Aside from getting into trouble for improvising when playing the classics, she says, “I wanted to study math.” By the time the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the then-14-year-old was beginning to take an interest in social processes. Soon after the New Bulgarian University opened in 1991, she began studying economics and political science, discovering Hayek before switching to a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a master’s in cognitive science. 

All the while, on the long bus rides to and from school, she was marvelling at the other passengers – all trapped in that pre-cellphone space, staring slack-jawed into the middle distance. Christoff couldn’t help wondering what was happening in those apparently idle brains.

When she got accepted to a PhD program at Stanford University in 1997, Christoff says she was excited to get away from the still-oppressive Bulgaria, but she was soon bridling under a different kind of coercion – the cultural compulsion in the West to produce, to always be doing something. Against that background, she became increasingly interested in understanding the thoughts of humans who were clearly productive and those who didn’t seem to be doing very much at all – soon emerging as an expert in using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to illuminate brain performance.

Developed in the 1990s, fMRI is an open, non-invasive window into the mind – a mechanism not just for mapping the brain, but for watching it work. Using radio waves and an electromagnet that generates a field 50,000 times the strength of the Earth’s background magnetism, an fMRI scanner can generate real-time images that enable scientists to track blood and oxygen as it moves to and from different parts of the brain.

Master's student Andre Zamani sitting down, with daydream-themed illustrations above hie head
Master's student Andre Zamani

Zamani says this has offered a huge advance over the early days of brain mapping, when the American-Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield revolutionized the field by inserting electrical probes into the brains of patients who were awake on the operating table, stimulating tissue to try to identify the function of various parts. Some of Penfield’s brain maps, published in the 1950s, are still in use today, but – thanks in part to fMRI scanners – scientists now understand that most functions don’t rest in a single place in the brain: they are performed by elaborately interconnected and dynamically adaptive networks.

Depending on whom you ask, there are seven main networks, such as the sensorimotor network (feeling, hearing, and motor response) and the visual system (sight and visual processing). And while the various parts of the brain all function more or less at once, some networks necessarily consume more blood-borne resources while they are working. For example, if there is a loud bang in the room, the dorsal attention network will jump into action, and perhaps recruit other parts of the brain to respond to a threat or an opportunity. Of the seven, however, the two most prominent are the executive network – which is responsible for task-oriented, deliberate thinking – and the default network, the part of our brain that is active when we mentally turn inward, during introspection and imagination.

If you look at this from the perspective of micromanaging employers, they want to see their offices full of alert-looking people animated by their executive networks – doing their work and focusing their attention on tasks that will advance the corporate purpose. On the surface, at least, that’s where the money gets made. A room full of people whose brains are engaging their default networks might look instead like they are all daydreaming, which is micromanaging-employer code for “doing nothing.”

But Christoff’s fMRI research shows that a wandering mind is, in fact, an incredibly active mind, busy making connections in a way that could be highly beneficial, even if it might not always contribute to an immediate task or the day’s productive bottom line. “We measure and value everything that is enabled by the executive network, but we put that function on a pedestal to the detriment of other functions in the brain,” she says. “If one network is on all the time, it takes away from the others – it takes away our opportunity to reflect, to understand who we are, or to make sense of our experiences. There is a dynamic imbalance.” And another way to understand “dynamic imbalance,” she says, is “burnout.”

When Christoff shares her research, showing fMRI images of people in silent reverie, their default networks highly active, many ask what we should be doing to restore balance. To which she says it’s not as simple as turning off your phone: “Devices are just a tool – good or bad. But we use tools to entrench our existing problems.” At least other people do. Christoff, who in addition to her academic and research duties also served recently as the interim director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, keeps the notifications on her own phone turned off 24/7 – she responds in her own time.

Christoff’s research shows that a wandering mind is an incredibly active mind, busy making connections in a way that could be highly beneficial.

Hearing that the default network also dominates when we are dreaming, some people ask if we should simply sleep more, to which Christoff says: Yes, but...

It’s good to get enough sleep, and when you dream you have spontaneous thoughts; it’s a critical function. But even “lucid dreaming” (when you’re aware that you’re dreaming) doesn’t involve deliberate processing, says Christoff. Whereas, if you are mind-wandering during the day, you get the benefits of the spontaneous and creative thought, but also the possibility of an attentive response – “not just the wild elaboration, but the deliberate evaluation.” Which means that if you stumble upon a good idea, you can alert the executive network to register and act upon it. Of course, being over-tired means that if you finally get a moment to daydream, you’re likely to just fall asleep. Christoff says you have to get enough sleep so you can be awake to mind-wander.

Another common question, which Christoff reports with a tiny hint of frustration, is “What should I do if I have half an hour?” Her somewhat contradictory answer is that you can’t schedule spontaneity, but you have to make time for it. You can’t just sit down with an inspired sense of purpose and daydream. But if you make a habit of turning off the phone and building into your routine a daily bus ride or a walk to work, your brain will begin to anticipate that opportunity and take advantage of it.

Of course, you also have to overcome any traditional and cultural biases against sitting in quiet contemplation. There is, first of all, the Freudian suspicion of the “dark mind,” ever lurking to lead us off the righteous path. As Christoff says, “Who knows what I might think next if I leave my mind to wander?” There is also research from Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, who authored a 2010 paper published in Science entitled, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” They argued that we are happier when we remain on task, not allowing obsessive thought to crowd its way into our consciousness.

Christoff disagrees. “Obsessive thought can seem spontaneous, but it’s usually driven by strong incentives.” We might be ruminating about money problems or some task left undone, or simply “negatively self-evaluating.” Christoff says, “True spontaneous mind wandering actually gets us away from the thing we can’t stop thinking about.”

So, she says, in this world where we can’t imagine a solution that is based on spontaneity, not on control, we should set aside some time to do something that makes us happy – itself a challenge. “We don’t notice what makes us happy; we are too busy doing what we are told.” Still, she adds, it’s worth the effort; play jazz, work in the garden, go for a walk.

“Make sure all the systems of the brain have their time of day.”