Teen Brains, The Future Unknown, and Why We Need to Encourage Kids to Daydream More

We spend 50 percent of our life daydreaming. And now, there's evidence that it's not just a waste of time.

Encouraging Kids to Dream More

Road trips aren't what they used to be. When I was a pre-teen, way back in the Flintstone Age, our family would hop in our Chevy Impala for the long annual Christmas holidays drive from Ohio to Florida.

Invariably, my head was in a book. I missed a lot of the scenery—not just because of the words on the pages I was reading, but because, in my mind, I had come to inhabit those worlds personally.

It was a world of daydream and imagination. Mind wandering made immersion into other worlds possible: to take myself outside my present and immediate world and try on different identities. Escaping into books allowed me to empathize with distant experiences—and in the process, gain perspective on how other people in other times and places navigated challenges, handled relationships, and endured hardship or triumph.

Today's teens may still take road trips with their families. I'm betting they still miss the scenery between the Florida Panhandle and its toe. They may read books—likely on e-readers, or tablets or listening to audiobooks—although a 2018 report found that fewer than 20 percent of teens reported reading daily for pleasure.

They are also likely to have their own screens, with ample opportunity to bury their heads in streaming videos, Instagram feeds or group texts. Exposure to screens allows users to jump from web site to social media to video to texting and back, permitting compulsive engagement in their always-on, peer-curated digital domains.

What is daydreaming—and what's it good for?

Studies suggest that, even in today's overcharged world, mind wandering persists and takes up as much as 50 percent of our waking time. Surely there is a reason for it—and when we find that reason, perhaps we can look at—and encourage— its uses.

Daydreams are defined as a series of pleasant thoughts that distract one's attention from the present. Beginning with studies in the 1950s, Yale researcher Jerome Singer identified a state he called "positive constructive daydreaming."

Marcus Raichle, M.D., is a neuroscience researcher at Washington University in St. Louis whose research first identified the brain's default mode network (DMN) and its function in normal mental functioning. He noted, “Your brain is conscious all of the time, regardless of whether you're awake or asleep or engaging in a particular activity or daydreaming.” He found that when we are in a quiet non-focused state of mind, many brain areas keep percolating and interacting.

Other researchers have confirmed that the wandering brain performs important functions, including consolidating memory and, further, promoting creativity and problem solving. In a 2012 study, researchers acknowledge that daydreaming allows for development of social and emotional skills like compassion, moral reasoning, perspective-taking, understanding emotional responses from others, and "deriving meaning from events and experiences."

So daydreaming is not just the mind taking a break from everyday thinking and problem solving (or laziness, as some might infer), it's an essential part of our mental wellbeing.

Why focus on teen brains?

The neuroscience of development indicates there are several reasons to limit teens' social media habits

Adolescence, between the ages of 8-25, prepares young people to leave home, take on responsibility and venture securely into the world as adults. It also gives their developing brains a long period of physical remodeling and strengthening, especially in the parts of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking, planning, reason and empathy.

How does a modern teen's immersion in their devices take away from this process? Even as we program teens' days into ever-tighter schedules to “maximize” their chances for success, and as teens themselves dive ever-deeper into their devices, science is beginning to show the importance of those unprogrammed moments when the brain is allowed to wander to help kids become better thinkers, more resilient and primed to succeed.

Here are seven ways we're beginning to understand that daydreaming plays an important role:

  1. Getting a full-brain workout.Activating and sharing activity among three brain networks, including the default mode network (unfocused mental activity), salience network, executive regulation leads to more creativity and better problem-solving skills.
  2. Daydreaming (along with play and sleep) plays a role in consolidating learning and memory, relaxation and managing stress.
  3. Character building, including skills like empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, allows young people to put themselves in someone else's shoes, and gain perspective on their own lives.
  4. Spurring creativity and imagination. Daydreaming allows your mind to wander across neural networks to pick up bits of relevant information and connect them. Such connections help us take seemingly disparate facts to form a cohesive whole (a.k.a., meaning making), but also form new ideas from which creativity can emerge.
  5. Problem solving may be related to the creativity that emerges through mind wandering, but may also activate parts of the brain connected to memory, learning and experience to come up with an elusive answer that all the focus and concentration in the world could not produce.
  6. Imagining the future unknown seems to be a uniquely human endowment—and need. Our ability to envision and rehearse possible futures, including exploring outcomes, as part of a mental exercise, gives us the ability to consider different possible futures and to make conscious choices for our actions without risk based on the most desired outcome.
  7. Being happy! Indulging in mental play also offers an escape into zones of the imagination from which happiness can grow.

So next time you're on a road trip, or just hanging at home, and your teen takes out her device to curate her Instagram for the umpteenth time that day, offer this 10-minute daydreamer's challenge: put down your phone and tune the world out. On purpose. Then do it yourself. And see what comes up.

For daydreaming tips and practices, check out the story, Daydreaming for Brain Health