Image description: A person daydreams while at their desk, writing. End ID.
Image description: A person daydreams while at their desk, writing. End ID.

Illustration by Dulce Pop-Bonini

Why Do Our Minds Love to Wander?

The psychology of daydreaming and the appeal of fiction, what it costs us, and why we insist on doing it anyway.

Oct 8, 2023

“With the high standards of our civilization and under the pressure of our internal repressions, we find reality unsatisfying.” - Hariharan
If you have ever sat till the very end of a film’s credits and stared at the “THE END” text as it slowly scrolls off the screen and everything goes dark, just because you do not feel like going back to reality; if you have ever lain awake in bed so long that you convinced yourself you were in some alternate, better dimension; if you’ve ever kept journals filled with such vivid stories one might think it was your actual life; or if you have found yourself going on and on with a story you are telling your friend, until it has strayed very much away from creative freedom, and very much towards straight-up lies — then you will know exactly what I’m talking about with this column.
Daydreaming. Alternate reality. Fiction.
Amongst the ordinary, monotonous, often tiring grind of real life, such escapes are our best friends. But have you ever wondered? Why, really, are we so drawn towards obviously fake stories? What is the psychology behind it?
The idea of fiction, as we know it, began sometime in the early 12th century​​. It is such a strange concept, is it not? We know that fictional events, though resembling reality, can never actually happen, yet they bring us so much joy. We strive for facts but we are addicted to fiction. It is this affinity for fiction that feeds our internal stream of consciousness and draws our attention away from the tasks at hand, as our mind wanders and constructs elaborate, realistic, often ridiculous daydreams. And although this definition makes mind wandering seem negative, a research paper by Singer et al. focuses on positive constructive daydreaming. Positive daydreaming occupies, the researchers say, approximately half of our time in this life. But our question today, and that of this study, is this — why do we spend so long daydreaming when it could potentially cost us a lot?
Singer’s study reveals four main unexpected, gratifying benefits of daydreaming that explain why it holds an adaptive advantage for our brains, and why our minds insist on wandering ever so often. Positive daydreaming helps (a) future planning — self-reflection and problem-solving, (b) creativity — storytelling, curiosity, imagery, (c) attentional cycling — so individuals can move between attention streams, which improves associational fluency and allows us to maintain both an internal and external world, and (d) dishabituation which allows us to escape the monotony of real life. In children, daydreaming has even been associated with an easier time delaying gratification and greater control. A further study also found that patterns of daydreaming correlate to the Big Five personality traits. Positive daydreaming was highly correlated with the personality trait of “Openness to Experience, reflecting curiosity, sensitivity, and exploration of ideas, feelings, and sensations”.
Contrary to what you might think daydreaming and fiction are about, they primarily concern other people. We want to know what it is like to live life as someone other than us. We, who are confined to live with ourselves for the rest of our lives, are so curious to experience being someone else, that we create stories to help us achieve that alternative identity. Psychologists explain this phenomenon in terms of the theory of mind: how we can explain people’s behaviors in terms of their thoughts or feelings. Fiction relies heavily on the theory of mind. There are so many behavioral cues that keep us guessing at what the character is feeling, what their motivations are, and what they are likely to do next. Theory of mind is activated when we make up stories in our heads too, we change the behavior of people around us to reflect a change in their thoughts, feelings, or desires.
Not only that, the more you use the theory of mind, the more enjoyable it gets. Some people really love to read fiction or to daydream no matter the time, place, or occasion. We all have that one friend who would rather read a novel or watch a movie than study for their quiz tomorrow or the one that will zone out every two sentences because the main characters are just about to kiss in their head and they just need to run this through. Some of us may even be that friend. Well, I am here to tell you that although I’m making a positive argument here, fiction addiction and maladaptive daydreaming are both very much real.
Now spare a thought for this - if you are zoning out and your friend asks you, “Hey, what were you thinking about?”, what would you tell them? Studies show that many people are in fact extremely uncomfortable with sharing their personal daydreams. This is because our inner worlds are deeply personal. They are often directed by our most prominent current goals, they are bizarre and non-conforming and sometimes, even non-ethical. They are the stuff our actual dreams or nightmares are made of, and sharing those can sometimes feel ridiculous too.
Daydreaming is also an act of leisure, it is a service to ourselves, to our souls if you will. Admittedly, we might have to schedule the daydreaming between a day packed with commitments, but it is rewarding. Time seems to work differently when your mind is cooking up a whole different world for you, a world where D2 doesn’t close at 10:30, and Brightspace permanently crashes and no one ever says anything mean. Daydreaming is a kind of meditation, I would argue, with the benefits it offers for the mind. The mental imagery involved in day dreaming activates the same brain regions as would be activated when we actually carry out the imagined scenarios. So the satisfaction levels, perceived by our brain, are the same. Daydreaming is the real free therapy. Time spent daydreaming is time we take out for ourselves. We build our own world where we are absolutely selfish and everything works out the way we want it to, and I think sometimes, we need that.
Tiesta Dangwal is Senior Opinion Editor. Email them at
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