In defence of daydreaming

When’s the last time you sat beside a river and let your mind wander? Outdoor therapist Ruth Allen extols the virtues of casting our minds adrift for a while

Ruth Allen

Posted on 02/05/2019

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It’s late afternoon after a long day at work, and as I walk past well-tended allotments down to my local river’s edge, the hedgerows are busy with blackbirds. Clattering through a heavy metal gate, I amble down to the sun-dried riverbank, grateful to see flowing water, and sit beside the water.

Gradually, I let my mind drift. I spend a while looking at burrows in the riverbank opposite, imagining the lives of nesting sand martins – how these tiny relatives of swallows have crossed desert and sea to raise their young beside our waterways. But before long I’m being pulled into a place of happy dislocation, pondering how I’ll spend the coming weekend, envisioning future trips and mulling over a project I’ve been working on.

Setting a soft gaze on the flowing water, I’m doing something akin to visioning. Rather than ruminating on unfulfillable wishes or future outcomes, I am imagining possibilities and rehearsing outcomes for decisions that lie ahead.

Daydreaming often gets a poor rap. In our productivity-orientated world, mind wandering has become an indicator of low attention and dissatisfaction with the present moment, perhaps even an unhelpful breeding ground for rumination. But sitting here beside the water, feeling calm and gently disconnected from the real world, I wonder if we’ve been getting daydreaming all wrong?

Why not sleep on it?
The whimsical half-sister of imagination, daydreaming is, it seems, at risk of falling out of favour entirely in a modern world intent on championing focus and hyper-connectivity. But in the last decade or so, scientific research has been reframing how we think about these absent-minded states of mind.

It is now understood that daydreaming plays an important role in developing ‘working memory’ – our limited ability to keep information in mind in the face of distraction. Or, to put it another way, our capacity to mentally manage multiple tasks at once.

Scientists now argue that daydreaming is the key to solving complex problems. It’s our mind’s incubator, an opportunity to zone out and let our unconscious mind process thoughts, consolidate learning and lay down memories. After all, you can’t always solve a problem by concentrating on it – and where would any creative person be without the environment needed to create disruptive ‘aha!’ moments? Daydreaming helps create space for these revelations.

This concentration downtime is not only beneficial for creative minds; some of our most celebrated scientific breakthroughs have arisen from mental meandering. Noted daydreamer Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity after letting his mind drift away from mathematics (apparently, he was imagining running at the edge of the universe when he hit upon his famous hypothesis). And would Isaac Newton have stumbled upon his theory of gravity had he not been slumbering beneath an apple tree in his mother’s garden in Lincolnshire?

Embrace the mundane
As well as playing an important role in creativity, working memory and moments of revelation, daydreaming can also be beneficial for our general wellbeing. While practising mindfulness and grounding is known to be effective for depression and anxiety, inhabiting an imaginative space is also an important way of keeping in touch with our wishes and desires.

Daydreaming is both energising and restful. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to let our minds off the leash for a while – a chance to wander at the edges of our inner worlds, free from the shackles of attentiveness and focus.

Perhaps then, it’s all about keeping one part of yourself grounded in the here-and-now, while allowing your mind to drift off every now and then. Being at the water’s edge invites this. And I can’t help thinking how gazing over a flowing river can help imbue our daydreams with a quality of lightness and movement, coaxing us away from negative rumination.

But how can unseasoned daydreamers slip into this state? One of the easiest ways to encourage your mind to wander is to embark on simple or undemanding tasks – anything that allows you to ‘space out’.

That’s one of the great things about our canals and rivers – with their slow pace and easy to follow paths, they grant us this dreamy headspace, even within the thick of the city. And as for simple tasks, the very act of walking beside water, feeding the ducks, casting a fishing line or throwing a stick for your dog is ample opportunity to let your mind wander. So next time you’re near water, why not let your mind take a detour and see where you end up?

Eva Bee